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Whether Josh has had to pull out of Twelfth Night last minute because of illness or your agent has secured you an audition tomorrow that could be your first big break in film, sometimes we just have to learn lines quickly for a play or TV show.
Not only is the process of memorising how to learn lines for a play in a day pretty daunting. Once you’re on set or in front of the audition panel you’ve got nerves to battle with as well.
“An animal, a monster which hides in its foul corner without revealing itself but you know that it is there and that it may come forward at any moment”.
Sound familiar? That’s Laurence Olivier describing nerves and stage fright. Don’t let worry about learning lines plague your performances or absorb energy from your preparation.
So often, actors find themselves saying “I knew it at home”. If you’re the one saying this in rehearsals, you don’t really know it. Learning script lines requires serious preparation. Not stumbling through lines but having thorough understanding of them and having them incredibly secure in your memory.
Chances are, if you’re an actor you’ve built up a relatively good memory for speech, but you’re not fully taking advantage of that power unless you’re incorporating the tips and tricks in this article.
We’ll be outlining common pitfalls when actors learn lines. As well as how to learn lines on your own, our favourite ‘learn my lines’ app, and other tips on how to speed up the process. Are you ready to become the best actor you can be? Let’s get started!
Here are a few tried and true methods that professional actors use—and that you can, too.
If you have any kind of music background (and sometimes none at all) it can be easy to slip into memorising lines by rhythm.
What does this mean in practice? You get into a rut of saying the lines a certain way with a certain intonation.
When given direction to shift your tone or energy, suddenly the intonation that acted as your stabilisers is gone and you’re forgetting lines in rehearsal. Not ideal. Even if the directors are happy with your initial intonation, lines get stale repeated night after night, take after take.
If you’re only giving yourself one rhythm and intonation for the lines, you’re limiting your acting ability and the potential to respond to fellow actors.
In short, you’re stuck in a rut. We recommend avoiding this way of memorising lines.
Lines make sense in context. When learning lines on your own, read through the script fully. Discuss character motivations (5 W’s or whatever works for you) and really understand why you’re responding in the way you are in each scene.
Approaching lines cold, even when you are just learning lines, is really challenging. The best actors bring authenticity to the character they embody. Which happens through study of their attributes, desires and motivations so the lines come naturally.
If you find this works with some lines and not others, trying ‘building bridges’. The metaphorical kind.
Your brain works through millions of connections between different concepts and ideas. If you keep getting stuck at the same part of a line, build a memory bridge that uses an association you’ll always remember to take you to the next passage.
For example, if you were trying to learn this line in the Duchess of Malfi, “Glories, like glow-worms, afar off shine bright, But looked to near, have neither heat nor light” and you kept forgetting what came after “Glories like”, you might use the fact both ‘glories’ and ‘glow’ have the same first three letters.
Or, you might build up a silly mental image of an advert for ‘glorious glow-worms’. Or picture shiny, glowing treasure. The sillier, outrageous and more personal the better. Anything that will give you that memory bridge which is a gateway to the next line that you have memorised.
Just remember, if you have to learn your memory bridge, it’s not a real bridge. Memory bridges should be instinctive, naturally leading you from one idea to the next.
Especially useful when learning lines for a play, writing out your lines is a great way to consolidate and memorise lengthier passages or monologues. It’s faster than you think and given 80% of learning happens visually, it’s well worth doing.
Always write out cue lines too – these are what your character is responding to and should be just as secure as your own speech.
We find writing by hand rather than typing is even better, associating an action with the words and really locking them in.
Learn what kind of memory you have! If it so happens you can only memorise sections per sentence, per two sentences or per 4 words, work with that and break up all your speech along those lines.
Tackle each individually allowing your mind to absorb it rather than overload with too much at once.
Once you think you have each section in isolation, put them together and test yourself by covering lines then checking if you have it right.
When it comes to learning lines with other people, it’s time to rope in a co-actor and audience.
If you have a willing and honest friend/family member who can read the other lines and let you know when you’ve slipped up or missed a phrase, this is one of the best ways of learning lines.
If they’re up for it, stand up and block things together or move according to the exchange you’re having.
Just like with writing, this is giving your mind more to do (actions as well as speech) that better replicates a real performance than sitting on your bed learning lines by rote. It’s also way more fun.
Testing yourself alone is never close to resembling the environment on set or stage. If you can, practice performing lines to an audience of friends or family before you go into an audition/rehearsal/performance.
A good tip is to practice saying lines whilst playing ‘slaps’ – if you mess up or forget your partner slaps your hands and vice versa.
The adrenaline of the game and the pace of speech nicely mimics what you might be feeling on stage and once again encourages your mind to multitask whilst you speak your lines.
How do actors learn their lines for movies? There’s an app for that.
Rehearsal Pro never gets tired of running lines. Just upload your script, highlight your lines and the app will do the rest!
Practice in the car, on a plane, in the warm-up room before your audition – learn lines with ease around your schedule.
It’s a little expensive at $19.99 but it’s an industry standard with glowing reviews from Hollywood heavyweights.
You can add comments, record different takes of your lines, add beat marks, work in blackout then reveal lines in ‘peekaboo mode’, there are so many great features.
Created by an actor on the major NBC television show, Heroes, it’s developed by actors for actors.
At £3.99, this app is better for those on a budget and allows you to record your part and the parts of other characters as well as leaving blanks for you to practice lines.
What’s great is the app’s ability to share recordings of scenes/the entire script for other actors to record their lines into the app so you can practice with them on loop.
Hopefully you feel more certain than ever that learning lines isn’t so scary.
If you put in the work, you can memorise that monologue or those fast dialogue passages.
We’ve covered tips and tricks on the best ways to learn lines for theatre, TV, and film.
Whether you’re learning lines on your own or with others, there are so many tools at your disposal – take advantage of them and give it your all!
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