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Who’s Line?

Posted by APATA Team | May 5, 2020

Placing a spotlight on the art of scripting, as teachers we’re always looking for ways to support students exploring a range of performance texts, reflect on the text and its meaning, then transform this meaning into a performance – quite the challenge when young students are just starting out in the world of speech and drama.

One of the biggest challenges is learning those lines. Even the most seasoned performer often works with a ‘prompter’ during the rehearsal period. The prompter (or prompt) in theatre practice is the person who prompts or cues actors when they forget their lines or fail to move on the stage to where they should be situated in the performance blocking process.

When an actor forgets their line seconds feel like minutes and each minute an hour. Actor John Mahoney performing in Harold Pinter’s ‘No Man Land’ at Steppenwolf Theatre explains “I was half way through a three-page monologue and I just blanked. I could not have told you my name.” Mahoney was left speechless and as a veteran of the stage demonstrates a blank in memorisation can happen to the best us where you “sort of freeze, eyes glaze over, fellow actors are looking at you and the stage manager is trying to prompt you by reading lines through the back of the theatre even though the audience is likely to hear them to break the trance and move forward with the performance”.

What causes actors to forget on stage is most likely different for everyone but sometimes is might be nerves or even from being over prepared as the play has been in production for many weeks. Sometimes it might be a focus problem where all of a sudden something gets out of place. For the young actor and student it could be fear but the only way to overcome fear or stage fright is by going on stage.

Back in the classroom teachers working with students focus on three learner-centred activities.

  1. Meanings – investigating the elements and conventions of a script.
  2. Memorising – developing the knowledge, skills and understandings required to rehearse.
  3. Musing – when in production evaluating effectiveness of the performance.

One of the hardest challenges for students is nailing those lines and that’s why it’s important to spend time teaching a variety of memorisation strategies. Importantly everyone is different so variety in learning is required to engage and build confidence especially for new students. For some, the process is easy. Others may need multiple attempts to find their process and comfort zone. Should a student be struggling it’s likely they’ll disengage so think outside the square and tap into what works for the individual. Often its easy to overlook how daunting the prospect of learning lines can be as process and confidence align. Sometimes, tangibility is the key, like implementing cue cards – it worked for Joan Rivers her entire career.

Here are twenty practical techniques for learning lines. These should be effective whether you are a student learning the ropes, practitioner, speech-giver or storyteller.

Good luck – and remember practice, practice, practice!

  1. Read the lines aloud: By speaking the lines you will hear them, and they are more likely to stick.
  2. Ask a friend to help you: Friends can correct you on any mistakes you make, give you the cue lines and go back over any weak areas.
  3. Practice, practice, practice: This is the only way to make the lines stick. Everybody has to do this, even the most seasoned performer.
  4. Little and often: Go over them first thing in the morning, a few times during the day and last thing at night.
  5. There are several apps which can help with learning lines: ‘Line Learner’ you record all the lines including those of other characters and then listen to them leaving silent pauses to speak your own lines. With ‘Rehearsal Pro’ you can upload a script and watch it scrolling by as you record your lines to listen to.
  6. Even if you don’t use an app you can make a recording of the scene with a tape-recorder or smartphone. Listen to it while you doing odd jobs are the house, finishing up chores or in the car. It’s a good idea to leave gaps in the recording to speak your own lines.
  7. Move around while you are saying your lines: This has been scientifically proven to aid memory. The best thing to do is to act and feel the emotions of the character so that you are learning the meaning of the speech as much as the words. Or just for a change you can even do something entirely unrelated like juggling or sweeping the floor.
  8. Go for a walk: Walking and saying your lines can be quite relaxing (you may get some funny looks but its not unusual to see people break out in song while on the run!).
  9. Learn the cue lines that lead in to each of your lines: Being prompt with your lines will give you and your fellow actors more confidence.
  10. As you say or read the lines, follow the thought pattern of each speech and the overall progression of the scene. Your lines are a part of the play.
  11. In rehearsals, listen to and think about what the other actors are saying. Don’t just concentrate on what you’ve got to say.
  12. Make a recording of the cast reading the script and use this to practice with so that you get used to hearing the other characters’ voices.
  13. Learn Lines in multiple ways: Learn lines with different physical actions so that your body doesn’t get locked into patterns. Sing your lines, shout your lines, whisper your lines…
  14. Write your lines out: Try writing your lines out by hand — do not type them. This method works well for long scenes with speeches. Writing your lines out by hand forces your mind to connect to the action of writing the lines down and seeing the lines. Make sure you focus on writing your lines out and your lines only. It will let you focus on you without having the distraction of other actors’ lines.
  15. Learn the thoughts: To think about when learning lines is learning the thoughts associated with each line. This is particularly important with classical text. If you don’t understand what you’re saying, how can you learn it? Or more importantly how will the audience understand it? Learning the thoughts in response to questions and statements from other characters means that all you have to do to remember your lines is listen. Learn the thoughts!
  16. One line at a time: The old classic. This seems shockingly obvious but just commit to learning one line at a time. Once you’ve learnt the first line, learn the second line. Then try both. If you can remember both comfortably, move onto the third line and then try all three. Continue in this way until you learn the entire scene. Sometimes the process can be overwhelming so focus on learning one step at a time.
  17. Rote learning: This is learning your lines in a monotonous, almost robotic fashion, so that you don’t lock in any vocal or acting choices. It is used commonly in the Meisner technique.
  18. Run lines with another actor: Running lines with a partner is one of the most well-known methods for memorising lines. The key is to run lines with another actor — not your friend from down the street. Running lines with another actor holds you accountable. Allow the person to coach you and read stage direction to you. During the first run, you’ll want to listen to the words and absorb the script.
  19. Quiz yourself: Use a scrap piece of paper to cover up everything but the one line you are trying to memorise. Continue to read the same line over and over again. Once you feel comfortable, try reciting the line without looking at it. If you can, move on to the next line and start the process over again.
  20. Use a mnemonic device: Try writing down the first letter of every word in your lines. When you look at those letters, it will help jog your memory and you’ll remember your line a bit easier. Think of the mnemonic device as a shortcut.

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