Just how do actors learn their lines so easily? This is one of the things people new to acting are often most concerned about. They find it hard to believe they could ever commit such large volumes of text to memory, let alone do it with the finesse required to recite those lines under pressure.
This is something all actors have to come to grips with and everyone has their own tricks and techniques to help them learn their lines. Ultimately, as with anything, it comes down to practice, but there are some key methods you can use to help make the process a whole lot easier.
Read the whole script. A lot
Whatever tricks you use, there is no getting away from the fact you will need to read the script many times to commit it to memory. Some people might be tempted to jump straight in and start trying to learn just their own lines (and their cues, if they want to know the right times to speak!). However, it’s a good idea to begin by reading the whole script multiple times before starting to worry about memorising your own bits.
What this does is gives you a broader understanding of the story and lets you develop a familiarity with the whole piece. It also gives you vital context about the overall themes and goals of the script, which is absolutely key when working out how to deliver your own lines.
When it comes to actually learning your lines, remember, highlighters are your friends. Go through the whole script and mark every line you have to speak in a single colour. This will speed up the process of flipping through the script considerably, making it quicker and easier to go back and forth between scenes. It also makes sure you don’t miss any of your lines, which could be embarrassing come rehearsal time!
Don’t just highlight your own lines though, you’ll also need to find your cues. Mark these in a different, contrasting colour and make sure you know these just as well as your own lines. You can then practise by covering up your lines, leaving just the cues, so you can work on reciting your lines from memory with only the cues to guide you.
Use the power of associative memory
There are several techniques you can use to help boost your powers of memory which may come in handy if you are really struggling to remember key lines. Associative memory works by taking a thing you need to remember and forming an association with something else.
One common way of doing this for lines is to fit them to a favourite tune. By singing the lines to a familiar melody, you then form a subconscious association between the tune and the words. Then, next time you are struggling to remember the words, you simply have to think of the tune and the words should come flooding back.
The important thing here is to remember that this is only a technique for remembering the lines initially. When it comes to the actual performance, you don’t want to be distracted by thinking of a song or other associated memory. By that point, you need to know the words so well, that remembering them is no effort, but if associative memory helps you get there, then feel free to try it!
Connect with the words
Being able to say your lines on cue isn’t enough, you need to know them so well that you can forget you’re reciting a script and speak the lines as if they are your own words. Sir Anthony Hopkins has his own technique for not only learning lines, but helping him connect to the words on a deeper level. Sir Anthony once said:
“I would write out the entire part meticulously in longhand, four or five times over. It would make it feel as if I had written it myself. It was a way of belonging to the piece, I guess.”
This idea of connecting with the script, belonging to it, can transform your performance from a dull recitation of the words into something alive and captivating. This is why it’s so important to know the script backwards and forwards. When you’re no longer thinking about remembering the words, but are really connecting with them, speaking your lines will feel entirely natural, setting the stage for a truly memorable performance.
Understand the context
If you find yourself struggling to learn your lines, think about this: why is the line there? What is the point of it? What is going on around it? If you really understand why you are saying the line, what your character is feeling and what they are trying to convey, recalling the exact words will be much easier.
“To an actor, dialogue is like food. You hold it in your mouth, you taste it. If it’s good dialogue the taste will be distinctive.”
Knowing the context and the subtext behind your lines will not only help you remember them, it’s also absolutely crucial to delivering a good performance. Understanding your character and learning lines should go hand-in-hand and makes the difference between just repeating some words from a script and actually acting!
Knowing your lines is just the beginning
Knowing the right words to say on cue is pretty important, but it’s just one of the range of acting skills needed to become a professional actor. Mastering the art of acting takes years, but if your goal is to become a professional actor we can help you get there a whole lot sooner. Our 1-Year Ultimate Acting Programme teaches you everything you need to know to break into the industry and turn your dreams into a reality. To find out more, take a look around the rest of the site and, if you have any questions, please do get in touch.
Podcast Episode 39: The best way to learn lines