We know that learning lines isn’t the most exciting part of acting. The reality is that unfortunately lines aren’t going anywhere, so you may as well get some tips on learning them!
Your brain runs on two systems; the first is the default minimal effort setting and the second is a controlled, intentional way of thinking. Habit is built when the brain transitions from the second system to the first. For example, when you’re learning to drive you’re using system two, whereas once you’ve established the skill driving to pick up bread and milk simply uses system one. To learn lines you need to be moving them from system two (pacing up and down panicking as you cram the lines!) to system one (delivering the lines like natural speech!)
What is your script?
It may sound like a strange question with an obvious answer, but understanding what your script actually is is essential. Read the whole thing (not just your parts) thoroughly to familiarise yourself with the story and characters. What is the genre? How does it start? How does it end? What are the inciting incidents in the middle and how are they resolved?
It can be tempting to get straight on with the note taking, but try to avoid this. If you’ve left yourself enough preparation time sitting quietly and reading the script both in your head and aloud in its entirety several times will give you a strong grounding in the overall story. Once you’ve done this give yourself some time away from it to let the script settle in your mind. In this time away you’ll develop ideas about how your character should be played.
Come back to the script afresh with plenty of note paper or your computer and start taking notes. Writing your lines out by hand rather than computer can aid memorisation as its stimulating a different part of your brain. How does your character interact with the other characters? What can you learn from their lines about their hopes, dreams and fears? What’s important to them? You should keep detailed character notes to hand throughout line learning, rehearsals and the production itself.
Where to start
You’ll need two highlighter pens; one to highlight your own and another to highlight the cue line prior to each of yours. Its essential that you take a holistic approach to line learning, always considering where your lines fit in with those of other actors. It’s vital when learning lines to set yourself reasonable goals. Your motivation will hit rock bottom if you’re expecting to be off-book in a matter of days. Unless you’re super human, this isn’t achievable and you should be honest with yourself about that. Instead spread your line learning across each day, breaking it down and using ‘little and often’ as your philosophy!
Every script contains at least one particularly difficult passage and its sod’s law that you’ll be landed with the tongue teaser. Focus on these sections by making extensive notes and spending extra care on them. You’re training your brain to pay special attention to this section.
Record the cast reading through the script or simply yourself and a friend reading through. You could try remembering your feeder lines and pausing the recording to deliver them yourself. You’re more likely to retain the lines by hearing and reading them aloud. Breaking the script down, start with small sentences repeating them aloud until you can remember them without prompts. Cumulative memorisation is a very effective technique for learning lines meaning that you add small bits of information to what you already know.
The cat jumps over the mat becomes
The cat jumps over the mat to reach the saucer then
The cat jumps over the mat to reach the saucer of milk and bowl of food.
Once more with feeling
Before you’ve fully understood your character its likely that you’ll be reading the script in your own normal speaking voice. Try to use emotion from as early a stage as possible. Feeling emotions and movement is known to help line learning. We appreciate that it may not always be practical but try to practice blocking at the same time. Changing things up by learning lines in new environments can be refreshing and many people find going for a walk or drive whilst learning lines very relaxing. If your walk is in a highly populated area you may want to pretend you’re on the phone!
The brain thrives on links. If you can associate your lines with something already in your memory this will be a great help. Ask a friend to help you as you come off-book. They’ll be able to quickly point out any mistakes and make suggestions based on how your performance is coming across.
As if you needed an excuse to get forty winks in, taking a nap after learning lines helps transfer them from your short-term to long-term memory! If you like to use the help of technology, there are several apps available to help you learn your lines. Line Learner and Rhearsal Pro are a few of the best known names.
Look after that grey matter
If you regularly learn lines the most important thing to remember is that you must exercise that memory. There are some general lifestyle choices you can employ to look after your memory. You can cultivate a strong foundation for a good memory by maintaining a healthy diet, regularly undertaking physical exercise, getting plenty of kip and keeping stress at bay. More specific memory exercises can include taking up a hobby involving hand-eye coordination such as tennis, learning a musical instrument, drawing maps from memory, learning a new language and doing maths in your head.