How To Learn Your Lines

Script of Romeo and Juliet with a rose

Learning lines is an important skill for the actor. You've got to learn your lines before you can step on stage or set and perform. But how do you actually go about it? There are lots of different approaches to the task, and really, you have to find one that suits you. Learning lines is simply about committing the words you have to say to memory - and that's just plain hard work for most people! While some actors have a natural flair for line-learning, others have to spend many hours on the task.

It's important to honour the writer's work, and not paraphrase it. Every time you change the words, even just a little, you change the original meaning that the author intended. While in some contexts "improvisation" around the lines may be permissable, for the most part, the actor is expected to present the words as written. It's your job!

And it's not until after you've learned your lines that a director can really work with you. Some beginning actors think, "As long as I've got my lines down by opening night, I'll be fine..." - but in a professional setting you're usually required to have your lines down early in the project's timeline.  Reason being, a director can do far less in creating a scene if you're still wandering around with a script in your hand. You're not free to play, to create, to experiment during the rehearsal process.

And while theatre productions may have long rehearsal processes over many days or weeks, a film project may have very little rehearsal at all. So in that case, you've got no choice - you just have to have those lines in your head ready for the director to call "Action!"

Here are some tips and tricks that may help you get started on learning your lines: 

  • Chunking: Go through your script from the top, and cover the words, say them, and check them - in phrases (chunks). Be careful not to memorise words in rhythms, though – well-trodden rhythms in your mind can mean you end up delivering you lines in a sing-song way. Moreover, at the line-learning stage, you don’t know how a director is going to ask you to deliver each line. Don’t become wedded to a way of speaking them too soon. 
  • Visualisation: If your text uses a lot of imagery, as you might find in a Shakespearean work, for example, use visualisation to help get the lines down. Imagine the scene in a series of pictures. Draw them if it helps. Tie your line memorisation to images, rather than words.
  •  Use your phone: Not only can you record your lines on a phone and play them back, you can source an app that is specifically designed for line learning. Apps like Script Rehearser, Rehearsal Pro, ColdRead or Linelearner let you upload a script, record it, or play it back line by line.
  •  The Buddy System: Once you’ve got the basics down, find someone who’ll run your lines with you. That may be a fellow actor, or just a willing friend. Give them a copy of the script, and have them read opposite you, ready to correct you when needed. Working with another person can make line-learning fun and less tedious.
  •  Get the words into your body: If you’re struggling getting certain phrases into your head, assign physical movements to the tricky bits. Sound them out symbolically with gestures or whole-body movements. When you physically repeat them, your brain is finding a way to make connections beyond the words on the page. Some say this method works wonders.
  •  Write them out: This is perhaps the ‘old-fashioned way’ of line-learning - but there’s something to be said for the magic that happens once words travel down your arm and out your pencil! The brain loves a process to help solidify learning.

Then, once you learn your lines, you must maintain them. You may find that during a season, if you’re not going over them regularly, some of the words slip away and you start paraphrasing. Your brain might start rewriting the lines a little - and that's a problem for the technical personnel (lighting and sound operators) to follow where a scene is up to in a performance, and it can be a nuisance to an editor working from a screenplay. So a regular refresh of your lines is vital.

Plus - you owe it to the writer, to get their lines right!