Learn Your Damn Lines!

It’s the most common question people ask an actor.

“How do you learn all those lines?”

Up front, this seems like a silly question. Of course we can learn lines. That’s elementary. There are far more difficult aspects to being an actor. Paying the rent, for one. Learning lines is something anyone can do.

Except it isn’t. Not everyone can learn lines. Not even every actor. You might be amazed to learn how many actors struggle with that very thing. I know I am. Amazed.

Every time I am in a show with an actor who is still not off book at the dress rehearsal, I have to wonder why they chose acting as a profession? Aren’t they embarrassed that they are holding up everyone else? Can’t they see that their own performance is suffering?

Until that script is down, an actor cannot be totally free to relate to the other characters, to explore the emotional content, work out the comedy, to be open to the direction. Plus, there is a thrilling moment when you trust that you know the lines, and they pop into your head kind of magically.

Often, the way you get your next line is from the other actor in the scene. Just look at him or her, listen to the cue, and sure enough, you know what to say next. Kind of a short cut to better acting, actually. So many people undermine the process by not letting go of the script.

There are many techniques actors use to learn their roles. Some record their lines and play them back over and over. Some use a partner to practice with. Some write the dialogue out by hand.

One friend of mine has a complicated system involving different colored post-its, sticking out from all sides of the script. How they are supposed to help is a mystery, but since he struggles to learn both lines and blocking, it would seem the complicated system is not making the process any easier.

Some actors never put the script down. Never. They keep it with them in the dressing room, and constantly refer to it in between scenes! That seems like the ultimate madness, to me.

Maybe it’s because I’m a quick study, or maybe it’s because of the old fashioned method I use, but I am usually the first person off book. (I prefer to memorize cold, with an index card covering the lines while I work my way down the page.) As far as I am concerned, as both an actor and a director, nothing can be done until the lines are learned. So I get the book out of my hands as fast as possible.

This is also why I never take notes in my script, not even to jot down the blocking. I just learn it when it is given. Muscle memory is often more reliable then the mental kind.

Naturally, I would not be writing about this unless I was setting up a story. Or two.

When I was starting out, doing dinner theatre and community theatre on Long Island, I was often cast in British parlor comedies. I loved doing those. One of them, by Noel Coward, began with a scene in bed. The actress playing my wife was having breakfast, while I read from the society page, with the newspaper held up in front of my face.

The comedy came from my annoying her by reading the list of well to do important people attending glittering functions. While we were broke. She kept saying “Be quiet. Stop it. Shut up.”

Everyone told me to paste my lines in the newspaper, in case I forgot them during the scene. That seemed preposterous. Who needs to write down lines? That’s cheating. I had learned them perfectly.

One of the theatre myths I heard when I was young, and to which I subscribe faithfully, is never to run lines before the show. The idea being that your mind works like a computer, and once you open the file and access the information, the program has run and you will not be able to retrieve the data when you need it onstage.

Actors who are insecure about the lines always want to run them in the wings, and I always politely decline. Well, always now. Once I learned the hard way that the theatre myth is true.

We were backstage. The lovely actress playing my wife wanted to run our opening scene. For some reason, I said sure. We ran through the scene, which put her at ease.

Lights up. Newspaper in front of my face. I drew a complete blank. The file had been opened. Data already accessed. Nothing there.

What made it worse was that all of her lines were “Stop talking. Be quiet.”

Which she said. Even though I was silent. It would have been funny if it were not so terrifying. I began to make up names and places, stalling until we could get back on script. Which we did. Eventually.

Once we passed the point that we had practiced in the wings, the lines flowed smoothly. The way they had every time before, and every time after.

So, lesson learned. No running lines. Your insecurity is not my problem.

As a director, I can tell you what a pleasure it is having actors who learn their lines quickly. Also, what a nightmare it can be to have actors who do not.

When a friend of mine asked me to direct her in a one-woman show, I said yes. Directing someone else’s vision was an intriguing prospect. Since she had written the script, she was solidly off book from the first rehearsal. She had the entire thing memorized, and what clear sailing it was for both of us. That experience was a delight.

On the other hand, I directed a play in summer stock, and had three male actors who could not learn their lines. Three! To be fair, two of them had an excuse. The play was The Foreigner, and the leading man spoke a made-up language. Most of his lines were in gibberish. Not easy to memorize words that have no thoughts behind them.

The second actor was an intern. He was young, and needed more rehearsal time than his professional cast mates. No one was angry with him for struggling to keep up.

It was number three that drew everyone’s anger. Including mine. He was only in a few scenes at the beginning of the play, and he was a director himself! In fact, he was to direct the next show. It was mind boggling that this guy would allow the other actors to see him calling for lines during our dress and tech. Shame on him.

Not all directors are as patient as I was in that case. The first time I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it was for a national tour. On the first day of rehearsal, which was a Friday, the snarky director announced that any fool could learn lines, so he wanted everyone off book on Monday.

After rehearsal, I explained to him that I had a show that night, a one-hour drive south in New Jersey. I would not get home until midnight. Saturday morning, I had to leave the house early to drive one hour north to perform all day at the NY Renaissance Faire. Then slip out early to drive two hours south to the show in Jersey. Get home at midnight again. Leave early on Sunday to drive back up to the Renaissance Faire. Get home Sunday night and collapse. There would be no chance to study my lines.

He wasn’t interested. No excuses. No exceptions.

Now, I should have gone to the producers. What he was asking was unreasonable, and not part of the deal when I was cast. There was no mention of it until that first rehearsal. Had we been told this at the callback, I would have showed up day one already off book.

Instead, I put my script on the steering wheel, and used the driving time to try to memorize the Shakespeare, starting with scenes that were scheduled for Monday’s rehearsal. At night, I had the dome light on in the car while driving, which was certainly not safe.

The stage manager in that production was a ridiculous nebbish. She had a form for keeping track of line errors during rehearsals, and announced the results each day. So and so made eleven mistakes. What’s his name made seventeen. My tally was usually on the high end, maddening for an actor who takes pride in being quick.

What was working against me was not just my schedule. It was also my inexperience with the language. This was only my second time doing Shakespeare, and I could tell by looking around the room that everyone else was much better at it than I was.

One funny side story: The version of the play we were using was not the Arden, nor the Penguin, nor the Viking, nor the First Folio. It was a watered down version prepared by the theatre company. G-rated. (“Love juice” was replaced with “Nectar.”)

Anyway, one of my lines as Oberon contained the word “Monter.” I was talking about releasing the spell I had cast over Titania.

What a monter was, I didn’t know, but figured it was a sort of mythical creature. Monitor. Minotaur. Manticore. Something like that. I had other things to worry about in the script, like how to handle the rhyming verse, so I didn’t pay too much attention to monter.

Until the day I picked up the Arden, or the Penguin, or the Viking, and read:

“…I shall release from monster’s view…”


Not monter. It was a typo. A simple typo. There I was in rehearsal, in performance, in front of an audience. Saying the word monter. Like an actor who could not be bothered to do his homework, and not a single person corrected me! Not the director, nor the nebbishy stage manager. Not any of the other actors. They all let me say this nonsensical word and never questioned it.

Another lesson learned. Look up the words you don’t understand.

That’s part of the fun of acting. Studying the script gives you the chance to learn other things. History. Geography. Information that can be helpful in creating the character, and the world of the play. Even more reason to get the lines out of the way first.


About anunperfectactor

Actor performer storyteller.
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