I was working through a script, on the tube this week, doing some last minute prep for an audition and generally looking like a nutter who had escaped from an asylm by talking to and gesturing to myself. When a brave lady next to me interrupted and asked how long it took me to learn a script, and how did I manage it because she was having trouble learning things for interviews. I am blessed with a very good memory (til old age and gin steals it from me) so I thought I would share with you some tips for learning lines in case it helps you learn whatever you need to do whether you are an actor or not.
Divide and Conquer. If you have a lot to learn (and it’s all relative) then break it down into manageable chunks. if I have a speech to learn I might break it into paragraphs. If I have a whole play to learn I divide the number of pages that I have lines on, by the days I have remaining to learn them. Knowing how much you can learn in one go is helpful. As is knowing when your brain is full and needs a rest.
Speaking. I can’t learn lines by just looking at them, I have to say them out loud. Like they advise you to do when you are introduced to someone new, you say their name to them instead of focusing on saying the name you already know, your own. So speaking out loud, probably because its more active instead of passive, helps the words go in.
Repetition. I’m getting the obvious one out of the way, but repetition (again out loud) is key to line learning. Luckily in rehearsal this repetition is done daily so the lines can go in naturally whilst working on them. but before rehearsals start, the repetition must be done at alone or with any friend you can persuade to help you. (quick thank you to my wonderful friend Victoria who has patiently read many scenes over and over with me).
Audio. I record my lines, and the cues to them, so I can listen to them on my ipod. Not everyone is visual so you may find that looking at the text doesn’t help you, but hearing it does. Also the repetition bit is now easier, you just ‘play it again Sam’.
Pictures. Even if you are a visual person, looking at pictures is better and easier to remember than looking simply at words. If there is an image that can accompany the text then draw it on your script. I cannot draw for toffee, but even a badly drawn eye makes me remember I talk about my eyes in the script and gives me a good laugh too.
Colour. Most actors highlight their lines. Colour is proven to aid memory as it is more interesting and more interesting things stick. You might use highlighters, or coloured paper, or coloured pens to underline and annotate your script.
Movement. If you are learning an audition piece then block some movements into the text. If you have rehearsed the lines “it dropeth as gentle rain from heaven” by looking up into the sky enough times, then looking up into the sky will trigger the memory of these lines. The same is true once you start blocking a scene in rehearsal, though you will most likely have had to learn your lines, to some degree, before that.
Thoughts and beats. Thoughts and beats may be specific to acting, but the fact that making sense of something makes learning easier, is universal. A disconnected piece (lists, unfamiliar names of chemicals say or foreign words) is harder to learn than one that is connected. I am going to write more about beats in a future blog on acting, but for now, look for and find the thoughts in your speech. If you can understand the journey of the speech you can make sense of why b follows a. And if you know why b follows a, you will remember that b follows a.
Mnemonics. A character on a sitcom once joked that mnemonics were pointless since you had to remember one thing in order to remember something else. But as illogical as it seems, they can help. If you have a disconnected list to learn then look at the first letter of each and see if you can make up a mnemonic. Even if you don’t remember the mnemonic, I find the process of even thinking about one aids the memory of the line. You remember the time you explored and failed to find the mnemonic.
Patterns. I use patterns to help me learn speeches. I look at the number of sentences and notice things about its structure e.g the speech is made up of 4 sentences. I will then look for patterns like 2 long sentences followed by 2 short ones. Or 2 sentences that start with ‘The’ alternating with 2 sentences that start with ‘You”. Like mnemonics this can sound over complicated and not worth the hassle, but the observation of patterns alone can be enough to embed the text into your memory when combined with other tools from this list.
Bedtime reading. I read a speech once over, out loud, holding the text (i.e. not from memory) just before I go to bed. The brain uses sleep to cement the day’s learnings so I give it a fresh copy to cement just before it does that. A quick refresh read of the text in the morning and I find it has just stuck better.
Combine. You don’t need to do all these things. But combine a few and you give your brain two ways to remember the line, so if the visual fails, the audio memory steps in as a back up or vice-versa.
Finally it’s worth noting that the memory works best when rested, relaxed and hydrated. So drink water, get a good night’s sleep and do some relaxation exercise before the audition, interview or speech.
If anyone else has anything else to share on this topic, please do.
To read more advice on enhancing your acting career chances buy my book here Talent Isn’t Enough.