Learning Lines

With just over 1 week to go before the opening performance of  the play I’m in rehearsals for, I’m currently wandering around looking like a madwoman. If you’ve ever witnessed someone on public transport muttering under their breath or pulling strange expressions, seeming to have a one-way conversation with themselves, they could indeed be slightly doo-lally but chances are, you’ve stumbled across an actor going through the line-learning process.

How lovely it would be if one could just wave a magic wand and make the process of line-learning simple and easy! With the wave of an arm, one would just KNOW IT. Unfortunately, the only way I can get them to “stick” is to put in lots of work on the text – discover what it is I’m actually saying and wanting from the other person/people in the scene. Then I go over and over the lines aloud to the point where I can be spouting them whilst doing other things, like the washing up.

Every actor has their own way of learning lines which suits them best. I have tried some other methods which have also helped, so here’s a little summary of some other line-learning techniques.

  •  Learn the thoughts behind the lines. You should do this anyway but learning the thought-processes means that you have something to hook the lines onto. Even if the actual line of text disappears from memory, you’ll know what the thought is and can come up with something similar.
  • Mind-mapping. I learnt this technique from Brian Astbury and you effectively draw a series of  images which will help you remember the line correctly. I end up having to do an image for pretty much every word, so my mind maps are pieces of paper covered in weird stick-men and basic hieroglyphics. Drawing is not my strong point but it’s not about being visually artistic. Just come up with a symbol that will help you recall the word. This isn’t a quick process. In fact, I sometimes think that with this exercise, the time it takes me to think of an appropriate symbol and draw it for each word/line, is the same as the time I could have spent just learning it normally. But again, what it does do is connect you a bit more deeply to the thought and gives you a visual cue for a line which can help. I think this is a good technique for learning monologues or large sections of text with no-one else responding. I find it starts getting complicated doing mind maps for other people’s lines.
  • Write out your lines. I think it’s more effective to write them out long-hand than type them up. There’s something about the act of connecting your brain with the relevant line and then writing it by hand so that the pen/pencil flows across the page. I don’t know the science behind it, but personally, I think the line sinks in that bit deeper when you physically have to write it out in this way. Perhaps it’s because it’s a slower process than typing and the hand/eye/brain coordination is more engaged? Who knows. This one has worked quite well for me in the past.
  • Record your lines and the cues and have them playing in the background. I haven’t tried this one but another actor once suggested recording lines, especially monologues and have them playing in the background or when you’re drifting off to sleep. The idea behind it is that even when you’re not consciously learning them, the lines are seeping into your subconscious brain.
  • Get a good line-learning buddy (either another actor whom you can do the same for or someone who owes you a favour) and just bat the lines back and forth, over and over until they stick. Line-learning can be such a lonely task that this is a much more pleasant way of working.


Does anyone else out there have good tips for learning lines effectively? Let me know if you do. In the meantime, I shall continue pulling faces and muttering to myself like an extra from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.


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