Article: However do you learn all those lines?




‘However do you learn all those lines?’

For an actor who’s just given the performance of a lifetime, that question can feel a little like asking an artist ‘however do you sharpen all those pencils?’

The ability to learn and retain vast amounts of text is a basic bit of an actor’s toolkit. All actors develop their own methods – here’s mine. It’s just one of them and you may find others, including line learning apps, might suit you better.

I start by reading the whole play several times, so I know the overall story and how my character fits in. Her journey, if you like.

Then I read the play many more times, reading my lines aloud. Walking about can help.

I’ll create my ‘secret script’ as I become familiar with the real one … working on what my character thinks, feels, wants, fears, hopes, would like to say but can’t, or has to say unwillingly – knowing what lies beneath will colour the script and bring it to life. This helps when the writer hasn’t given me a whole lot to work with!

Read-throughs with the other actors also help – I like recording a read-through once the lines are fixed and there are no more changes. It’s so useful to hear their voices. Some actors prefer these recorded read-throughs to be very deadpan and expressionless, but I prefer to become familiar with their line readings as well as the words.

Now I’m familiar with the script, I’ll start the business of learning it by reading my first line aloud, then looking away and saying it over and over again from memory, until it flows.

Then I’ll read the first and second line together, look away and say them both from memory.

Then the first, second and third together … And so on to the end of the first scene.

I do the first scene from memory as many times as I like until I feel confident.

I’ll often go back and repeat the ‘reading then saying’ line by line process again, to ensure I’m not drifting from the book.

Then it’s the same process with scene two, then I’ll run through the first two scenes until I’m fluent, and so on until I’ve done all the scenes.

Ideally I’ll just keep on doing them, referring back to the script to check I’m on track, and get the job done early. The sooner I’m off book (able to run the lines from memory), the sooner I can start acting in rehearsal. The director, the cast, the prompt if there is one, and I all need to feel confident – otherwise the audience won’t. I do feel anxious if I’m off book late, especially if other actors are already there.

If I have difficulty with certain bits I might try creating an imaginary film visualising what I’m saying, drawing little pictures in the margin, using different coloured highlighter pens to link problem lines and noting words that alliterate, repeat, connect or rhyme to link them in my mind.

You might like to print your script on coloured paper, have particular scents and flavours about you as you learn – lemon, mint, etc – your brain then connects the colour, smell and taste with the words and helps you retain and recall them.

It’s not only your lines you need to know – at least a familiarity with everyone else’s lines in each scene will help you keep track of where you are, know how to respond in character to what the others are doing, and alert you to the cues you need to trigger your next line or action. It goes both ways – you need to give the others the keywords and cues they need to trigger their next line. Paraphrasing or missing lines out can mean they miss their cue, so accuracy is all.

And sometimes things do go wrong. That awful ‘is it me … ?’ silence is agony for actors and audience and the actor who can salvage the moment by improvising a few words that help everyone back on track is the actor who gets cast again.

A bad dress rehearsal is supposed to herald a good first night – usually because panic means you read the play over and over again till you’re finally sure of your lines.

And it doesn’t stop after first night. I’ll read the entire play every day until the end of the run, reading my lines aloud in character, looking in the right direction and moving about, to keep lines true.

Yes, it’s time consuming hard work, but it’s worth it because my confidence, my performance and my reputation depend on this unseen preparation.

And apparently, the habit of learning lines is an excellent way to keep your brain alert and your memory sharp.

Break a leg!

Philippa Hammond
Actor/voice artist