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?