People always ask me how to learn lines.
This question seems almost too obvious to warrant an article: you just sit down and learn your lines, right? But it is amazing the number of times people ask me the best way to learn lines. There are a few different approaches to this integral part of an actor’s life, so I thought we should take a look:
1. Learn the thoughts
The first thing to think about when learning lines is learning the thoughts associated with each line. This is particularly important with classical text. If you don’t understand what you’re saying, how can you expect your brain to retain it? It would be like trying to memorise a poem in a language that you don’t understand. It will probably take you twice as long to get it memorised. Learning the thoughts, particularly when they are in response to questions and statements from other characters means that all you have to do to remember your lines is to listen. If you do not understand the thoughts behind the lines, the audience won’t either.
2. One line at a time
The old classic. This seems shockingly obvious but just commit to learning your text in smaller, digestible chunks or one line at a time. Once you’ve learnt the first line, learn the second line. Then try both. If you can remember both comfortably, move onto the third line and then try all three. Continue in this way until you learn the entire scene or monologue. Sometimes the process of memorising a 4-page scene can be overwhelming, so it’s helpful to focus on learning just one line at a time.
3. Rote learning
This is learning your lines in a monotonous, almost robotic fashion so that you don’t lock in any vocal or acting choices. It is used commonly in the Meisner technique. At it’s most extreme, you learn lines without even paying attention to punctuation. So you basically learn in the same way as in point 2, but you don’t try and learn the intention behind the lines, purely the lines themselves. Essentially, you are learning the lines through muscle memory, as opposed to thoughts.
This doesn’t work for everyone, but I do find this can be helpful for certain actors who get locked into choices and rhythms simply because they’ve rehearsed it so many times in a particular fashion.
4. Experiment and Play
I leant this from a great voice teacher at drama school – In the same way that rote learning prevents you from getting stuck in vocal and physical patterns, learning your lines by speaking them in various different ways helps keep you open. Our voice teacher went as far as getting us to learn lines with different physical actions so that your body doesn’t get locked into patterns. Sing your lines, shout your lines, whisper your lines, recite your lines whilst cooking, or cleaning, or patting the dog. Be creative! It’s always good to mix things up and play when it comes to acting, watching robots get up and perform is rather uninteresting! (Unless you’re Gemma Chan in Humans…)
5. Use a Friend
I have a friend who cannot learn lines on his own and always asks a mate to help. For some people, this is reality. And that’s absolutely fine! Get a friend to read the other lines for you and help you work through the script. You might want to buy them lunch or coffee afterwards, but that’s also a nice chance to catch up.
I would also recommend this method because it is probably the quickest way of learning lines and stops the inevitable procrastination that occurs when learning lines on your own. You can also use the ‘Phone a Friend’ technique after you’ve done your own first round of line learning, to help really cement in the text.
6. Acronym Method
This is a new technique I discovered, which is a little left of field – but for me personally, has drastically improved my line-learning abilities! Honestly, it used to take me hours and hours to learn a 1-page scene, but now – I can do it in 20 minutes or less.
Read more: How to Learn Lines Fast
Here’s a little video where I explain how this method works:
However you learn your lines, make sure that you know them backwards. Nerves and anxiety will impact your memory and focus, and that is where preparation is key in helping you get throuh. I.e. the more comfortable you are with your lines, the more you can focus on your acting!