How to Memorize Lines for a Play

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Is anything more terrifying than the thought of being in front of an audience during a stage play and having absolutely no idea what your next line is supposed to be? The biggest mistake that most actors make in the study of a new script is that they put more emphasis on memorizing words than they do in understanding their characters' personalities and what drives them to be in a particular conversation and scene. The following techniques are ones that I not only used to learn lines for my own stage performances but also to coach first-time actors on how to improve their listening skills and work together as a team.

Things You'll Need

  • Stage play
  • Yellow highlighter pen
  • Pink highlighter pen
  • Tape recorder
  • Note pad
  • Computer and printer
  • Telephone
  • Listen attentively to the entire play during the first read-through and not just the scenes you happen to be in. In the excitement of being cast in a show, actors are often so excited to flip through the pages and find their next line(s) that they completely tune out insofar as (1) what the plot is about , (2) the chronology of events, and (3) their relationships with the other characters. This can be problematic, for instance, if you find yourself opposite someone in Act 1 who suddenly and quite inexplicably delivers a line from the end of Act 2. If you know the material well, you're in a position to do damage control and improv your way back to where he's supposed to be so that the show can go on. Good acting is oftentimes all about rescuing one another from these doofy lapses of memory.

  • Mark all of your own lines with a yellow highlighter pen. In addition, highlight the last 3-6 words of the previous speaker's lines with a pink highlighter pen. The lines marked in pink are your cue lines that will trigger what you're supposed to say next as soon as you hear them. If someone asked you, for example, to sit down and list (in exact order) the songs on a favorite CD, it would probably be difficult to do. If you are actually listening to the CD, though, it only takes the closing notes of a certain song to jog your mind and instantly tell you what the very next song is going to be. When you sit down to study your marked-up script, those bright pink words will be committed to memory right along with your own lines in yellow.

  • Read the script through at least three times, then set it aside and use improv to reinforce your understanding of character and motivation. As a director, I used this technique frequently to get my actors comfortable and "in the skin" of whomever they were portraying. This was accomplished on two different levels. The first was to have them enact the scene that was just read, relying only on their memories to convey whatever crucial information was exchanged. By expressing everything in their own words, this exercise validated their interpretation of the material. The second improv exercise was incorporated halfway through the rehearsal period and was designed to help actors get out of any jam they happened to find themselves in during a performance. In this exercise, they were given a hypothetical situation that had nothing to do with the play (i.e., "you're being audited by the IRS", "you just won the lottery", "your job is being eliminated") and told to interact with one another exactly as they felt their characters would respond. The value of this exercise is that the more you can "think" like your stage alter-ego, the less likely you are to get in trouble and forget lines.

  • Break large monologues into bite-sized pieces. There's a reason, for instance, that telephone numbers are written as (123) 456-7891 instead of 1234567891. Small segments are easier to remember than a long, cumbersome string of data. If you have a monologue in the play, you will probably need to retype it for study since it is likely to be written in the play book as one giant paragraph. Divide your monologue into several short paragraphs (no more than 3 sentences each) that will be easier for your mind to digest. Even this act of retyping is instrumental because of the amount of proofreading you'll be doing to make sure you copied it accurately.

  • Use a tape recorder as a study aid. There are two methods you can employ that work equally well. The first is to record everyone's lines (including your own) and play the tape wherever you go. Whether you're commuting to work, exercising at the gym, or doing household chores, the repetition of hearing lines over and over will cause them to sink in. The second method is to record everyone else's lines but silently mouth your own lines so as to leave gaps on the tape. This is a good exercise for not only getting used to hearing verbal cues but also perfecting your delivery time since you have a finite space in which to respond with the correct line.

  • Recruit friends and relatives to read lines out loud with you. Another great way is to set up telephone dates with your fellow actors and run lines back and forth as quickly as you can. Since it's not always easy to physically get together in-between scheduled rehearsals at the theater, a phone date fills the bill nicely and can be done at any time that's convenient for both of you. In addition, it's a great way to have your own brush-up practice sessions after a show has opened and you no longer have the structured routine and discipline of rehearsals several times a week. On a humorous note, I used to run lines on the phone during my lunch hour at work with the romantic lead of the play we were both in. You can just imagine the kind of rumors that one of my gossip-loving co-workers started spreading when she overheard my half of the conversation outside my closed office door and didn't realize it was all for a play!

  • Carry a note pad everywhere you go and write out all of your lines. You can also do this on the computer and then test yourself against a copy of the script to see how accurately you're remembering everything.

Tips & Warnings

  • Always practice your lines out loud. If you only read them silently when you're by yourself, you're not going to be as sharply focused and energized.
  • Learning your stage blocking (stage movement) at the same time you are learning your lines will be easier than if you memorize the entire play before the first rehearsal and then have to mentally incorporate everything the director tells you to do.
  • If space permits when you are practicing by yourself, go through all of the physical movements (sitting, standing, turning, walking) and handling of props. Whatever you are physically doing will help you to associate the lines of dialogue being spoken.

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