Learning Lines

By Emma Wright

If you’ve ever seen a show and stuck around for a Q+A with the actors, it’s likely that you’ve heard someone (or yourself) ask: “How do you learn all your lines?”. In the middle of 2019 I was very fortunate to tour the East Coast of Australia with Monkey Baa Theatre Company’s production of Jackie French’s Hitler’s Daughter. After each performance we held a Q+A, and almost every time we were asked this very question.

So how do actors learn lines? The short answer: everyone learns them differently.

What the Scientists Have to Say

In recent years, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner proposed a theory of multiple intelligences. This theory is a response to what Gardner believed to be outdated and limited views of intelligence, and has been implemented globally in classrooms as educators seek to find ways to best deliver their content and assist students in their learning. Repetition and book-based learning doesn’t work for everyone, and Gardner theorises that different areas of the brain and senses of the body should be utilised in education. Gardner’s eight proposed ‘Learning Styles’ are: visual/spatial, aural/auditory-musical, verbal/linguistic, physical/kinaesthetic, logical/mathematical, social/interpersonal, solitary/intrapersonal, and naturalistic.

How is this relevant to learning lines? Well it’s important to understand that we all learn and retain information differently. Some people learn quickly, some take a little more time. Some people learn best when they are digesting the information visually, others via sound. You may find that you learn more efficiently when with other people, or that you work best alone. Knowing this about yourself, you can structure a way of learning lines that works best for your individual learning style.

Visual, Aural, and Verbal Learners

If you’re a visual learner, you may find that attaching an image literally or imaginatively to each of your thoughts in a text will help you retain the lines. This could be as involved as collecting appropriate images and sticking them in the margin of your script, drawing something on the page to trigger the dialogue, or building specific pictures in your mind’s eye. This method is like a visual mnemonic device (like the ‘Roy G. Biv’ acronym for the colour sequence of a rainbow, but made graphic) and can be an effective way of jogging your memory. It may also help you to map out the scene’s journey on a graph.

Visual learners will find memorisation easier when there is contrast on the page and their lines are highlighted. All the white space and black text can be daunting, so be sure to keep a highlighter ready in your pencil case. Another tip is to print out the scene, highlight your lines, cover the page with your hand and reveal one line at a time. Use this to learn the lines bit by bit, to feed and encourage curiosity about what comes next, and as a way to test yourself and your accuracy.

For aural learners who learn best through sound, music, or rhythm, perhaps recording your lines into your phone and listening to them back will help them stick. Aural learners may also think better with background noise, so try playing some music in the background to help you concentrate. Tapping out the rhythm of the text, particularly with Shakespeare and iambic pentameter, may also help, as may singing out the dialogue. It may sound silly, but if it works for you – great!

Linguistic and verbal learners hold onto information through words, through reading, writing, listening, and speaking. If you learn best through speaking, you can experiment with recording your scene partner’s lines into your phone, one line at a time with a pause in between or each line as a separate recording, and then play the lines in sequence and speak out loud your lines as they’re cued.

Physical, Logical, and Naturalist Learners

Physical and kinaesthetic learners are people who learn best with an active, hands-on approach, so this is where tools such as writing or typing out your lines is going to be most useful. You might also find that occupying your body with another activity, such as holding a plank or going for a walk, helps you absorb the lines, or using gesture and physical actions to make the dialogue stick (just make sure you’re not locking in any blocking!).

If you’re a logical or mathematical learner, focus on identifying patterns in the text. Circle all the repeated words, highlight punctuation marks, underline rhymes or repetitions of sounds (assonance and alliteration). If you’re a naturalist learner, get out in nature or find an environment that matches that in which the scene is set to learn your lines in, seeing as naturalist learners learn best through experience, observation of the world around them, and experimentation.

Social and Solitary Learners

Finally, if you’re a social learner, find a friend to run your lines with. This can be over the phone, in person, with someone from school or someone in your family. It might be fun to ask them to read your role, see what words stand out differently in their delivery. If you’re a solitary learner, you’d be best sticking to independent line learning activities, but that doesn’t mean you’ll find no use in running lines at some point with a partner. Having someone on script while you’re learning can be helpful, and they can be there to make sure you’re learning your lines accurately and not skipping over the writer’s words or punctuation.

Other Tips & Tricks

The most important things to remember when learning dialogue is that you’re learning the lines as they’re written, and that you’re learning thoughts, not just text. If you don’t understand the logic of the scene, if you haven’t done your text work, the lines likely won’t stick. So, before you start looking up from the page, break it down, and make it meaningful to you. In all your text work you should be able to speak out the logic and action of a scene in your own words. If you can’t do this, you’ve got more analysis to do.

It’s also worth noting that whatever memorisation technique you use, it’s likely going to require some repetition, so make sure you put aside the necessary time. You also want to allow yourself the time, if you can, to step away from the material, before returning to it again with fresh eyes. Scientifically, spaced repetition works best. You’re also unlikely to work well when dehydrated or running on an empty stomach, so eat well and get yourself a bottle of water.

You want to avoid learning the delivery of your lines. If you feel yourself falling into vocal patterns, do your best to shake them off as quickly as possible. Acting teacher and theorist Sanford Meisner proposed a rote line learning technique, in which actors learn lines mechanically and monotonously, without any emotion whatsoever. You don’t want to find yourself stuck delivering a line with emphasis on certain words, with an inflection here and a lower pitch there, as you cannot guarantee that that interpretation will be of any use once you’re on the floor responding in real time to a scene partner. Leave room for play and for spontaneity. The golden rule: do your homework diligently, then when you get on the floor, throw it away, and surrender to whatever happens organically in every given moment.

You may not want to learn your scene partner’s lines, though some actors find this useful. You should however find ways to connect each of your lines to that which comes before, as every new line has a trigger that should come from the other person. Breaking your script into beats is also going to help you in your line learning, as it means you can work through your script in digestible chunks. The old adage applies: “how do you eat an elephant? One piece at a time.”

Memorisation is a skill, and it’s something you can sharpen and also something that can get rusty, so best practice is to make it part of your ongoing homework as an actor, and build it into your routine. Set yourself a task of learning a one-page scene or a one-paragraph monologue a week. If you’re working in hospitality, test yourself with memorising the orders of your customers. Practice is key. So, what are you waiting for?

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