How theater folk memorize their lines

"When you own them, then you can really begin to play."

Actors get asked one question more than all the others. Not about a favorite play or character, or actor. Not how they played a certain scene so effectively. It’s much more basic.

"How do you memorize your lines?”

I’ve heard several people say they’d love to be an actor except for “all those words.” Here are responses from some of San Diego’s expert practitioners.

Tom Stephenson

Tom Stephenson

Tom Stephenson, Craig Noel Award–winning actor: “Learning lines is a brick-by-brick affair. Some actors are slow off the book. I am one of them. So I read. Read again. Find key words. Read again. Work for clarity of sense. Reread. Make a choice of inflection (as a drunk, or as someone running away from a fire). Look away and say it. Reread. Make a different choice. Look away and say it.

"Note: any cheat helps, like alliterations, key emotional peaks and character reveals. Reread. Look away and say it. Sleep on it. Repeat the next day. Begin to establish rhythm and intent to your readings. Change it up. Stay in period and place.

"Learning lines is a boring chore. The real work comes when you don’t have to work as hard to remember. I try to stay as neutral as I can until I feel safe shaping the sound and meaning of the words. Collaboration with the director and a mindful generosity towards my fellow actors begins to set things in a little.

"The discipline of learning words is the necessary seed-planting where artistry finds a way to grow.”

Amanda Schaar

Amanda Schaar

Amanda Schaar, actor, appearing soon in New Fortune Theatre’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses: “How do I learn my lines? Deductive reasoning. A script, especially a good script, is chockablock full of clues, which, if put together with care, cunning, and luck, tells the story in its most compelling way. These clues are almost entirely in the words.

"I look at my own words — and at everyone else’s — for clues. I study how they tell the story in each scene, how each scene plays with every other scene, and at the whole script altogether.

"Punctuation makes for glorious clues; it gives voice to the thought and feeling in the line. A run-on sentence suggests the character is in a hurry to convey this information, maybe in excitement or upset? A one-syllable line, like, 'Yes' or 'War,' is something very different.

"Some clues are in the stage directions, which actors/directors are either much for or against, but that’s another story. By the time I’ve finished gathering clues, I find I’ve learned my lines, and then some. I say ‘finished,’ but then no performance is ever finished. Performances always grow, hopefully towards the Great!”

Jacque Wilke

Jacque Wilke

Jacque Wilke, Craig Noel Award–winning actor: “My process starts physical, is quizzed intellectually, and delivered by emotion. To start, blocking helps me develop muscle memory — When I say this, I am walking here, etc. — which can sometimes prove difficult if you have directors who don’t block early, or if you have limited rehearsal time to get off book.

"Once I have it in my body and have a blueprint of the play, I ‘quiz’ myself. I take a piece of paper over my lines and read my cue lines to learn. If I am lucky and able, I find some willing participant (usually a friend, my brother, or ideally the actual scene partner) to read them with me, but that is not always available.

"Once the lines are there…I means really, really there…then I can begin to deliver to my scene partner or audience and play with emotion. I will always remember what my first director in San Diego, Rosina Reynolds, told me: ‘If you don’t know why you are saying the line, you will never remember it.’”

Robert Smyth

Robert Smyth

Robert Smyth, artistic director Lamb’s Players Theatre: “As I’ve grown older, I now see memorization as part of an overall physical preparation, like training for an athletic event. Memory is a muscle. Exercise it properly and it becomes stronger and more agile.

"Owning my lines has become an increasingly important goal. When you own them, when they are simply there at your command without thinking about them or about what comes next, then you can really begin to play.

"For me — because I am slow of study — to arrive at that point I need to be tediously rote in learning. I speak each line until I can repeat it five times without any hesitation or error. Any fault and I return to the back of the line. Then I add the next, until I can do that with a section, then an entire scene. It is time-consuming, but for me it makes so much difference in rehearsal, and in my own enjoyment of the work.

"I love theater that moves at a proper clip. To do that you have to have your tools sharpened, your muscles toned. Do it with a strong cast all striving for that and it’s a remarkable, addictive experience."

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