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Answer: There are several ways that actors memorize their lines, including writing them down, covering the script page with their hands, etc. but the best way… (continued in David’s answer below)
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Answer: There are several ways that actors memorize their lines, including writing them down, covering the script page with their hands, recording them and playing them back while speaking them, even running lines with other actors (or non-actors).
Getting the sides for an audition or the script from the production office for a booking for unpaid or paid acting work is a moment of elation – a sense of what’s possible should you get the gig if auditioning, or really rock it if booked. After reading the entire script to get the placement of your character in the story, the next step is to memorize your lines. Far from all the work you have to do with the script, memorizing lines is a fundamental basis for the rest of the work you do with a character.
How you memorize your lines is up to you, but you want two things out of the process: accuracy and clarity. You want the words the writer gave you to be delivered with accuracy (especially in comedy, as the actual placement of words is critical to the humor), and you want the meaning of those words to be crystal clear to you – you have to completely understand the lines and how they relate to the other characters and the story.
Here are the most common ways that actors learn and memorize their lines. If you’re just getting started as an actor, try them all to find which one works best for you. Try them not when you get work, but during your downtime. If you’re a working actor and you’ve always had problems learning your lines, try one something other than what you’re used to doing
By the way, if you’re looking for electronic help in learning and memorizing your lines, the app for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, called Rehearsal, was created specifically to be able to help you learn and memorize your lines. I created it for myself, have used in dozens of productions, including LOST, Heroes, movie projects, and all of my auditions since late 2009. If you want to use the tool I use to learn my lines, Rehearsal’s available here.
Recording your lines and playing them back, speaking them as you listen. This is my personal choice – it works best for me, as I work by ear, and tend to link plot points with certain words, lines and ways of addressing my fellow actors. I used to use a hand held recorder, and then used my voiceover studio equipment to record the entire scene – my lines as well as all the other lines in the scene, in order. I would then save those recordings as MP3 files, bring them into iTunes, and tap the loop option to listen to them over and over.
When recording your lines, say the other actor’s lines at full volume for their character, and say your lines barely above a whisper. That way, you can talk over them without competing with the way you said it when you recorded it, leaving plenty of opportunity to change up the way you say the lines once you memorize them. The nice thing about Rehearsal, the app, is that it’s persistent: the moment you finish running your lines, it gives you three ADR beeps and starts again. You run your lines a few times, and you begin to get immersed in the sound of the scene. A dozen times and you’re on the path to full memorization. And if you find a new way of saying your lines that you really like, record the scene again, and start working with that version.
Running lines with other actors. If you can find someone to be a reading partner with you, someone that can resist directing you, but can be there for you when you need to run your lines, that can often be a great way to learn your lines. Do as many runs with the script in your hands, referring to it, as you need. Remember, it’s not a competition – don’t beat yourself up if you have to call for a line. That’s the point – to have someone who can prompt you if you need it, and can be an ongoing partner in the game of catch that is dialogue.
Hiding lines with your hand, reading them aloud. My friend, Dule Hill, known for his work on West Wing and on Psych, was a beta tester for Rehearsal, but in it’s beta form wasn’t much help to him. Dule is an actor that’s never recorded his lines and played them back – he just places his hand over his script page, hiding his lines and moving down the page, peeking if he needs to for a prompt of a forgotten line. This works well if you’re a visual actor who ties lines to the location of the line on the script page as you’re learning.
By the way, we added a feature called Blackout to Rehearsal specifically for Dule and other actors that memorize their lines by hiding them. Any lines you’ve highlighted are blackened in this mode, and you tap the screen to “peek” at them.
Writing out your lines by hand. Lots of actors find that the act of rote transcription, often repetitive transcription, works like a charm for them. To do this, have your script, as well as a pad of paper on your desk. As your lines come up, as you speak them, write them down on the pad. Take your time, and sooner or later, you’ll be completing the line by speaking it rather than referring to the script to find the words. Once you can do that with all your lines, you’ve memorized them all. A variation on this method comes from @vanessaleinani on Twitter: “Enjoyed your article on line memorization.Sometimes I use a dry erase board and speed write the lines as fast as I can.”
Not memorizing your lines at all. Don’t laugh – if you were to walk onto the set of certain television shows, you might see lines taped to the non-visible side of furniture, laying on tables, fastened on clipboards and taped to walls and doorways. Why? With the volume of lines that series regulars have to learn, sometimes dozens of pages, some of those actors choose to parcel out their lines per scene, and simply learn them as they need to on set.
There’s nothing wrong with that process – rest assured that those actors have read the script and know exactly what their characters are supposed to be making the audience feel with their scenes. The fact that they haven’t committed the lines to memory is of no consequence to their ability to entertain us.
What’s your answer to this acting question? Let me know in the comments below.
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I love this article. I have used all the methods mentioned to memorize lines. I laughed at your last method because I have used it also, and felt silly—but it worked. In a one act play in high school, I had parts of my lines on my hands, tablecloths, the stage floor, some of my props, and even on the face of one of my fellow actors in one scene.
I like the recording yourself acting out the lines and than playing it back that should be the #1 choice. It’s like memorizing a song.
I also like the tape recorder method, but another thing I do, if I am a lead with a lot of dialogue, is to record the table read (some call this the “Read Through”). And listen to that many times over. That way you get the sound of the actors who will actually be performing those other part too.
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