I Vant To Remember My Line

I remember the first big acting role I had in high school. The play was Dracula and I was cast as the title character (and no, it wasn’t type casting!). I so wanted to make a good first impression on my director and fellow cast members that as soon as I got the script I rushed home and began immediately memorizing my lines.  I showed up at the first rehearsal proudly gloating that I had all my lines memorized!

Chuck Neighbors as Dracula: "I vant to remember my line!"

Rehearsal began… and when it came time for my lines… the lines I had memorized… I was strangely silent. It was my turn to speak… but I didn’t know it. You see, while I had indeed memorized the words on the page, I had not bothered to read or study the rest of the text.  I could quote my lines like a monolog, out of context, but didn’t know where they fell in the sequence of the story.  In short, I didn’t know my CUES! Big mistake!

One of the questions that often comes up on this topic in my workshops is “do I have to memorize my lines word for word?” Lots of people don’t like my answer to this, but if you are an actor performing a script then the answer is “YES!” you must memorize word for word. There is both a philosophical reason for this as well as a practical reason:

  • The philosophical reason is that you are performing someone else’s writing. Most scripts will have a disclaimer that the text can’t be changed without written permission from the writer or publisher.  (Just imagine going to see Shakespeare’s Hamlet; you are waiting for the famous “To be or not to be” speech and the actor says “be something or don’t be something, ya know?” ) Your job is to interpret the text, not rewrite it.
  • But equally important is the practical reason. It goes back to my big mistake in playing the famous Count. Lines are memorized based on cues.  If I don’t say my line as it is written in the script, there is a good chance the person I am on stage with won’t know how or when to respond with their line. And if I have changed the cue, the line they have memorized may no longer make sense. Changing cue lines is a recipe for forgotten and missing lines in a performance! Don’t do it!

Here then are a few tips on how to memorize:

  • Read the script! At the risk of being redundant—read the script. Read it first to get a good understanding of the story. Read it again to gain insight into your character. Read it again for understanding of other characters and their interaction with your character. Read it until you can tell the story of the script in your own words.
  • Highlight your lines so they stand out on the page.
  • Using a blank sheet of paper, cover all the lines and slide the paper down—a line at time—as you work on each of your lines.
  • Memorize out loud. Say the lines as you plan to say them in character, thinking the  character’s thoughts as well. Say your lines AND the cue lines (the other person’s lines) out loud. While not consciously trying to memorize the cue lines, if you use this method you actually will!
  • Only after you can respond with the correct line, word for word, do you move on to the next line. Begin again at the top with each new line you memorize.
  • Memorize on your feet. Keeping your body moving gets your blood pumping, helping to keep you alert and focused. Pace, or if you know the blocking (stage directions), practice it at the same time.
  • As soon as possible get the paper out of your hands and practice the lines with another person giving you the cue lines audibly. Ideally the other cast members, but if that is not possible, anyone who can read will suffice. If you don’t have another person to work with, use a tape recorder.

Memorization is my least favorite part of my craft.  I hate memorizing (especially when it comes to 30 pages of monolog in my one-man shows), but I will tell you that I love BEING memorized. Nothing can make you feel more confident in performance than the secure feeling that you know your lines.

Have a tip or suggestion on memorization you can share?

15 thoughts on “I Vant To Remember My Line

  1. barbie says:

    Great post, Chuck. I must admit that I was disappointed that your method is the same as mine. I was hoping you had some amazing, simple, work free method of memorization. But alas, it does not exist!

    1. Bobbie Helland says:

      a work-free method like the Matrix – download the text right into the brain!

  2. Philip Dorr says:

    Chuck, where were you when I was learning lines? Excellent, just excellent. Oh, the pain…the struggle…the agony…and finally the ecstasy of knowing those lines. Blessings on you, brother.
    Philip Dorr

    1. Chuck Neighbors says:

      Phil, remember my role in the Smokey Mt. Passion Play? I was the understudy for ALL male roles… so I was studying your lines too! 🙂 Great prep for what I do now!

  3. Muriel Willoughby says:

    Thanks for the reminders…any tips on preparation for reading dialog such as for a radio show? Oh, humm, you wrote the play our drama group is performaing! How about that? What do you suggest?

    1. Chuck Neighbors says:

      Thanks Muriel, Looking forward to (hopefully) seeing your production! As for tips for “reading dialog” … you probably don’t want to hear this… but for best results: memorize! Think of the script as a prop not something you will actually “need.” If you listen to good radio drama, you don’t feel like you are listening to a reading. The listeners mind is busy creating visual images of the story. I’m not saying you can’t actually read the script, but your focus needs to be on character, not words. You really have to own the material for that to happen! Blessings as you prepare!

  4. Danette says:

    I memorize Shakespeare and I agree completely with you about memorize every word. I’ve never been completely word perfect in a play but I strive for it. A trick I use is besides constant repitition, is saying my lines backwards. Yes, I want people to know I know my lines backwards and forwards. The words you stumble over backwards (usually prepositions) are the ones you will stumble over forwards. I visualize words, lines, and ‘chunks’ of lines as beads on a string making a pattern. The pattern can go backward and forward. It’s harder work, but I memorize much faster, understand my character and other characters better, and really know the cue lines. When I’m stronger in the text, I’m in a better position to rescue the scene when other actors blank out and get lost. Too often I’ve had to do that, but the show is a team effort and you support your team.

    1. Chuck Neighbors says:

      Wow! Backwards! Impressive… I have heard that used as a cliche, but never really knew someone did that! To me that would seem a bit to much focus on the words and as opposed to character thoughts. But I also say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” so it that works for you, more power to you!

      1. Danetteska says:

        Actually knowing my lines frees me to understand my character better in rehearsal. And those lines or words that I stumble on, backwards and forwards, are usually lines or words that open up the character more. When I go forwards after working backwards I play with and work on the character. Makes me think entirely out of the box.

    2. Terry Olson says:

      I’ve tried learning the last line first, and then the one before it, adding on until I get to the front. There are some advantages to that in that, since I know where I’m going my confidence is building as opposed to knowing the first lines down pat and then getting more and more unsure as I go further into the script.

  5. John Welton says:

    I walk for exercise and while doing it I listen to the script (cues and lines) that I have recorded on an electronic recorder. I do this several times before I actually go to the page to do memorizaton. I find that since I have already been exposed to the script audibly, the words stick in my head better.

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