Ever had the actor’s dream? Not one where you’re naked onstage. Not the one where the audience is naked (jeez, there’s a lot for Freud to unpack in the actor brain…) We’re talking about the dream where you get onstage for your big scene and every line you have has left your head! For most actors, this dream has come true at least once in their careers: everybody chokes or freezes, and there’s no shame in that. But it goes to show why knowing your lines is so important—not just for the job, but for your mental wellbeing. Let’s explore some different ways to learn lines as an actor.
There are a number of different ways to learn lines as an actor. Some tactics are fairly straightforward, others loop in areas of acting study such as script analysis, voice or even movement. Actors should be encouraged to road test different ways to learn lines, but find a methodology that suits them best.
In this article, we’re going to look at several tools and tactics for line learning. We encourage you to give each of them a go, but remember not to be hard on yourself if a particular method doesn’t work for you. You will always be the best judge of what fits in your actor’s toolkit.
Different Ways to Learn Lines as an Actor
#1: Read the Script
Before you attempt anything else on this list, give yourself the strongest foundations you can by reading and analysing the script. The more meaning and understanding you can derive from the words on the page, the easier it will be to learn and recall lines. Why? Because they’ll be important to you. Once you pour over that script, you’ll realise that not a word is unconsidered by the writer, or out of place!
Pros: Deeper understanding of story, strong foundation for building character, it’s harder to make generic choices or ‘fake’ lines when you understand their importance.
Cons: Script analysis can be a lengthy process, so budget your time to ensure this doesn’t take over your life or eat into actual memorisation time.
#2: Prepare your Script
Another thing to do before you move down this list is prepare your script. You can highlight your lines, mark any problematic passages; once you begin action/objective work (see below), you can include notes for any related prompts. Marking your script keeps you from forgetting director’s notes, or losing the meaning or intention behind lines.
Pros: Highlighting makes for quick reference to your lines on the go.
Cons: Marked up scripts can become messy and confusing if you’re not careful; don’t sacrifice clarity for speed.
#3: Repeat your Lines
A classic: say your lines, over and over until you know them back to front. Repetition helps you reinforce the material by drilling it into your head, as well as to find the rhythm of the dialogue. However, it’s also a chance to try different readings, inflections or intentions. It’s helpful for the lines themselves, but you’re wasting a chance to develop your performance if you go on performance auto-pilot.
Pros: Proven method for learning lines, chance to experiment with material throughout the process.
Cons: If you’re not careful, you can lock yourself into a particular line reading; this can be difficult to walk back even with directorial input or changes to the scene. (It’s also less helpful if the dialogue is changed on the day of filming.)
#4: Run the Scene
If you have the benefit of a reading partner, or especially the actor you’ll be working with, you can run your lines with them and memorise them that way. Honestly, it’s an extension of the above point about repetition. But it’s often a lot easier when you have a person to work with (who can also quiz you on what you’re getting right and wrong.)
Pros: Running the scene feels exciting and dynamic; you’re not just learning lines, you’re actually performing the piece!
Cons: A scene partner is not always readily available. If you have the resource of another person to work with, you may still wish to use another memorisation strategy.
#5: Record Yourself
Record yourself speaking your lines: you can listen to them (over and over) or recite along with yourself (over and over.) Some actors like to record the dialogue around their lines, so they can speak their part and slot it into the context of the scene. It can be a bit fiddly to get the timing right, but gives you a similar experience to working with a reading partner.
Pros: Read with others while reading alone! Also a great way to have lines repeatedly playing with little effort: listen and absorb.
Cons: If you’re reading along with yourself, you can fall into the trap of locking in a single performance. This is doubly true for rhythm, as there’ll be no other timing that works other than the one you’ve left a dialogue gap for.
#6: Know your Cues
If you’re feeling confident on the words you’re saying but not when you’ve meant to say them, try focusing on your cues. What’s the line spoken before yours? If you can remember this, or mark it down in your script, you can give yourself a better idea of when to come in. This is particularly helpful for theatre pieces, with larger and longer scenes for you to navigate.
Pros: Learning your cues is simple, streamlined process for remembering where your lines are placed.
Cons: Relying solely on cues in a script won’t give you the context or meaning behind the line. It’s a great reminder, but do make sure you’re still familiar with the larger story as well.
#7: ‘Initial the Scene’ (Mnemonic Device)
Using a large notepad, write down the first letter of each word in your line/s, along with all punctuation. It’ll end up looking like some kind of secret code. Next, try reading it just from the initials, before looking away to recall increasingly larger chunks. Mnemonic devices like this are classic tools for training long-term memory; they force you to think and recall the word, rather than rely on trial-and-error.
Pros: Highly effective methodology which gets you comprehending each word (and therefore its importance in the script.)
Cons: For long scenes or scripts, it can be a time-consuming process. We’re all for the commitment, but budget your hours accordingly!
P.S. This one is a favourite of ours at StageMilk. We have a full article on this technique, along with the video below:
#8: Objective and Action
Work out your character’s objective (what they want in the scene, and from their scene partner) as well as their actions (how they plan to get it.) This might sound like we’re giving you extra tasks to do, but knowing your character’s wants and tactics makes it a lot easier to memorise. Giving purpose to each line, each phrase and word, marks them a lot harder to forget. Otherwise, your character might fail in their overarching goal.
Pros: With actions and objectives plotted, you’ll have a much stronger sense of a scene—a deeper understanding of why your character chooses those particular lines.
Cons: No cons. This is stuff you should be covering in your script analysis of a scene anyway. Have at it!
#9: Use your Body
There has long been a psychological connection drawn to memory and physical movement. Try attributing a movement to each line: a gesture, an action. It could even be a pace at which you move. A lot of actors swear by learning lines as they exercise; there’s more to it than simply keeping the mind/body busy during a repetitive task.
Pros: When you are struggling with memorising a particular passage, changing up your line-learning tactics with some movement is a great way to ‘wake up’ your brain.
Cons: Some actors feel self conscious about their ability to move; if the exercise is going to challenge your sense of self confidence, it may be better to seek out a more low-stakes solution.
#10: Take a Walk
If nothing else is working or fitting for you … have a break. Take a walk, fold some washing, make a cup of tea. It can be super stressful to learn lines as an actor; one of the best things you can do to aid yourself is to listen to your mind when it needs to take some time, and approach the task afresh when you resume.
Do I have to Memorise my Lines Exactly?
Yes. Big yes. A lot of actors feel as though they are able to fudge a word here or there in order to make it through a scene. Some even feel entitled to give the character their own (more authentic, they claim) voice by changing dialogue to something that sounds more like them. Our warning is this: changing lines is a slippery slope. You might start with one or two words, but you’ll end up relying on this, until you can’t tell your inventions from the original text.
And what’s so special about the original text? Consider that the writer has painstakingly chosen every single word, and then defended those words to editors, directors, producers, your fellow actors. They want to give you the very best to work with, so trust them. The exact wording is always more interesting, as it helps you speak to the true meaning of a scene, as well as the subtext that fuels all the dramatic tension and stakes.
So there you have it: all the wisdom we have to give on how to learn lines as an actor. Just remember that these methods will require practice on your part to be effective. So in between the big auditions, keep at the process of learning lines; try out different methodologies and see what works for you. Better you improve these skills in quiet career times, than all of a sudden when you really need them.