Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Basic On Stage Survival Guide (part 3)

How Do I Learn Lines?

(Some Memory Tips and Tricks)

I am often asked "what is the best way to memorize lines?" I don't know if there is a "best" way but I can tell you what I do and what others do. But first, if you recall, under the subject of "highlighting" your lines, I mentioned it was a good idea to Highlight the lines or actions just before your lines. Case in point: I did a play with an amateur actor who highlighted all his lines and memorized them in advance (so we all could see how dedicated he was). The rehearsal began and our dedicated actor was completely lost. Why? Yes, he knew his lines, however he did not know "when" to say them his lines. He neglected to memorize his "cues". What's a cue? That is the line or action that prompts your line.


PERSON 1: How are you today?

PERSON 2: Just fine! Yourself?

If you are playing Person 2, it's kinda important to respond to Person 1. The only way to do that, is to know Person 1's line. Not only must you memorize your lines, but you must also know the lines that come before them because those lines are your cues. Hence my suggestion of highlighting your cues in another color. I suggest 'another color' to prevent you from accidentally reading those lines in rehearsals, because it will happen. I've done it.

Ready Set Action

Another Example:

The wind blows through the open window and extinguishes the burning candle.

PERSON IN THE DARK: Oh great! The candle went out!

Here you are "Person In The Dark" and as you can see, your cue is not another line that is spoken or any kind of sound you will hear. It will be something you will "see". It's a cue based on an action. One of the hardest things to remember is a cue from some type of action.

In most cases, the actual "wind blowing through the window extinguishing the candle" will not be actually 'happen' until the "Tech Rehearsals". Novice Note: "Tech Rehearsals" (Technical Rehearsals) are usually the final rehearsals one week before the play opens. This is where the all the Lighting/light cues, Sounds/sound cues and other Effects (wind and candles) are worked out.

Until you get to Tech Rehearsal, hopefully someone will follow along in the script and Read any action cues out loud. This is not always the case. I have spent what seemed like hours on stage in a rehearsal waiting for someone to say a line only to find out it was a visual cue. It's a good idea to be familiar with the line that comes just before the action. For instance, going back to the candle being blown out by the wind, if the line just before it is - "My! It sure looks windy out there!" You may want to be aware of it.

Hi, How Are You?

OK. Now that I've made you aware of what to memorize, let's get back to methods to help you memorize.

The first thing many actors do is the read the script a few times. Next step is to re-read the scenes in which you have lines -those will be the pages where your lines are highlighted in yellow. While you are re-reading these scenes, look for easy bits to remember such as responding to a question. Perhaps another character asks you something. "How are you today?" and your line is "Just fine." Or they ask "Where did you put the gun?" and your line is- "I threw the gun in the river" In lines such as these, your cue is a question and you simply respond. Responses are very easy to remember.

Mind Games

Another key is to pay attention to the subject of the lines just before your lines. Look for clues. In many cases, your line will contain a word or idea that relates.


SALLY: The trees look oh so lovely in fall.

DICK: Yes they do. I must get wood for the fire.

In this case, it's easy to see the cue for Dick's line is related to Sally's line. The subject of her line is "trees". Dick responds to her statement and then seems to begin a new subject about 'wood for the fire' , but in essence it's the idea of 'trees' that cue "wood for the fire". When lines contain what I refer to a "Cue -Clues" , (trees = wood) they are a cinch to remember.

Once you search your script for easy Question/Answer lines and Cue/Clues you can move on to other memory methods.

Picture List

In my early days on the stage, I was given a great technique that I still use today and it's very similar to the Cue/Clue example I sited above. I was a novice actor in a fairly large role, I was having trouble with a short monologue I had to deliver because the monologue had a "list" of things I had to rattle off. Lists are very hard to remember. One of the actors took me aside and suggested I tried to visualize each item in the "list" and connect or relate it with the next item.


GEORGE: When I was a kid I had a bicycle, a wagon, a dog and a purple umbrella.

The actor told me instead of thinking of the words as a list, one item after the next, to instead think of them, or picture them as one big item. Relate them to each other as one image. In the example above, the list has a bicycle, a wagon, a dog and a purple umbrella , so I pictured myself as a kid riding a Bicycle. And the bicycle was pulling a wagon. And in the wagon was a dog. And since I didn't want to ride too fast, there was a purple umbrella on the back of the wagon for a parachute. One big picture instead of little snap shots.

Connect the Dots

I have used this method of "picturing" to help me memorize ever since. I use it to remember long monologues. Most monologues contain "ideas" such as Hamlet's monologue which begins "To be or not to be." The main idea is 'death' and Shakespeare uses different metaphors as ideas to express the characters question and they can be broken down into ideas.

I look for the ideas in a monologue or in a long passage of dialouge because each idea will lead to the next. In most long speeches, the character is talking about this idea which leads to that idea, which is like the example of the kid riding the bicycle (first idea) that's pulling a wagon (second idea).

Going back to Hamlet's "to be or not to be" - the very first idea is the whole question of "being" or "not being" which is leads to the idea of "suffering slings and arrows" or to "take arms against a sea of troubles" which leads to the idea of "not being" or "death" is being like the idea of "sleep" and on and on. Each idea leads to the next and it's easier to remember if you connect the ideas.

Pretzel Safe Diamond Peanuts

Sometimes, you may have ideas that are not connected. A scene between 2 or 3 people in which they seem to be talking about 2 or 3 different things. For instance - I was in a Neil Simon play called "Rumors". Near the beginning of the play, the characters of a husband and wife arrive at a their friends house. As the scene begins the wife is commenting about the furnishings of the house and the husband is talking about how hungry he is and is wondering if they have any snacks. At least two pages of dialogue between the husband and wife that had no real connection or ideas relating to each other. Two different subjects with no easy question/answers or Cue/Clues. I simply created mental images triggered by the other unrelated lines. I created my own Cue/Clues.


WIFE: I bet she keeps all her jewels in a safe!

HUSBAND: I can't get this pretzel bag open!

WIFE: She has a dozen real diamonds you know!

HUSBAND: These peanuts are unsalted! Who buys unsalted peanuts?!

Based on the Wife's line about "jewels in a safe" , I needed something to cue my line; "can't get this pretzel bag open" .

So, I thought about an image of "jewels in a safe" and connected it with "pretzels" in "bag".

The jewels are locked away in a safe and you cannot open a safe. The pretzels are in a bag. I can't open the bag.

For the next line, I visually connected "a dozen real diamonds " to "peanuts are unsalted!"

Diamonds are clear crystal objects. Salt is a clear crystal object. The simple association of "diamonds" and "salt" worked as a cue for my line.

Between The Lines

Another method I often use is a tape recorder. You can record yourself reading the cue lines followed by your own lines. And then listen to the tape over and over, while driving or working or whatever. Much in the same way you learn the words to a popular song or a commercial jingle from hearing it over and over. Repetition is the key. Repetition is the key. Personally, I only tape myself reading the "cue" lines and then I read my lines silently to myself, allowing the tape to be blank for the time where my line is spoken. I play the tape and say my lines out loud during the blank spaces.

Another method is to simply read the script and cover up your lines with a piece of paper. As you come to your cue line, (which is highlighted in a different color) say your line and then you can move the paper to see if you were close.

You're Out of Order

When I say "close", what I mean is - as you begin committing your lines to memory, initially you will remember the "gist" of the line. If the actual line is: "Joe and me are going out for awhile, I'll pick up the ransom money on the way back. I'll see you later." At first you will remember clumps of words, the key points of the line such as "going out", "picking up ransom money" and "see you later" . Seldom at first, will you recall the exact order of the line as it appears in the script. You may recite it from memory like this: " See you later. I'm going out for a while with Joe. On the way back, I'll pick up the ransom money."

Welcome to the wonderful world of paraphrasing. Don't worry, we all do it at first. But try not to make it a habit. Problems can occur when actors continue to paraphrase even during performances. The main problem is those lines are someone else's cue. In the above example, 'see you later' may be a cue line for another actor, but if it's the first thing the actor says instead of the last thing, it may cause a problem.

One of my favorite personal examples of the "paraphrase fallout" came during a live performance of "You Can't Take It With You". The actress playing the part of a Russian Countess never said her lines the same way twice. The other actor who relied on her lines to cue him, finally developed a strategy to wait till she stopped speaking to say his one big line: "I'll make sure you're on time, your Highness."

He would say his line regardless of what she said, because he knew it came directly after her it and when he heard a reasonable amount of silence, he knew she was done. One night, for some strange reason, the actress said her line exactly as it was written. Hearing his cue as it was meant to be, caused some type of malfunction in the actors mind, there was a slight pause and finally his line came out; "I'll make sure you're on Hime your Tiness". Realizing what he just said, his eyes got very wide and literally his body jerked with a shock. Some day I may write a chapter on how to suppress laughter on stage.

The Write Thing

I know an actor who approaches memorization, like studying for a final exam. He will sit at a table and read his lines over and over. He will then test himself by closing his script, taking a piece of paper and pen and writing his lines down from memory. He will then check the script to see if he made any mistakes . He does it over and over until it sinks into his memory. Rarely does he paraphrase.

Read To Me

A common method which is probably the most popular, is to find someone willing to to follow along in the script and feed you your cue lines. They read from the script while you squirm and struggle to recall your lines uttering phrases such as: "No don't tell me! I know this! This is where I say something about the thing..... OK! How does the line go?" Having a somewhat impartial person to help you can... well, help you. If you say your line incorrectly or paraphrase they will more than willing to correct you.

Pause Turn Page

Some actors I've known simply memorize their script with no special methods or outside help except a photographic memory. They can actually visualize pages of the script in their mind. I knew one such actress who during her performance would pause at odd times. Right in the middle of a line she place a beat (novice note: Beat - pause of about one second) for no real reason. I found out that each pause she took corresponded to a place where her line was continued on the next page essentially she would pause, as she mentally turned the page.

Memory Cement Blocks

Allow me to tie this all back into the process of rehearsal because this is where your memory will be tested. You can listen to your lines on tape or recite them with a friend but it is not until you're in rehearsal that all your work finally develops and begins to click and stick into place. In a rehearsal, you are hearing your cue lines from the actual actors who be saying them. Also as you rehearse you will be moving around the stage with your blocking which can really cement the lines to your memory .

Move Speak Move

You will discover that your movement/blocking will attach itself to your memorized lines. I discovered how deep this "movement = line" connection was during a line blitz. Novice Note: A "Line Blitz" or "line rehearsal" is usually a panic session the director calls for when play is about to open. The actors sit around and simply run all the lines from the play, no acting, no blocking, just dialogue. Sometimes, you are asked to run all the lines as quickly as possible. Extra Trivial Note: I've also heard this referred to as a "Rain Rehearsal". The story goes that if there was bad weather during a performance, there may be a chance the power would go out. If the power went out, the audience would want their money back. But, technically, if the play was beyond the half-way point, the theater did NOT have to issue refunds since the audience saw more than half of the show. To prepare for this, actors would have "Rain Rehearsals" which was a 'speed metal' version of the play.

So anyway, during a line rehearsal, line blitz, rain rehearsal, whatever, we were sitting around running our lines and I noticed I was having a hard time recalling my lines. In frustration, I got up and began walking around and as I paced around the room it suddenly dawned on me. My blocking! I realized how much of my memory was embedded in my blocking. When I say this line, I'm standing by the door. And for that line, I'm walking to the table. Not only can a someone else's line prompt you, but so can a movement or location on the stage.

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