Learning Not Memorizing


Minnesota Public Radio got in touch with actors in the Twin Cities wanting to know the following: what is your line memorizing routine, what tricks do you use, what tips would you have for young actors on how to memorize lines?

You can listen MPR’s story on line memorization featuring friends Leigha Horton and Clarence Wethern. Due to the overwhelming response from actors in the community, MPR also created another page with more line memorization tips and tricks here.

Below you will find my complete answers to each question:

What is your line memorizing routine? What tricks do you use?

Recently a director, another actor and I were talking about the basic requirements of an actor:

1) show up on-time to set, 2) know the lines and blocking, 3) deliver lines and blocking convincingly, 4) go home.

While I understand those very basic requirements of the job, the task of memorizing lines has never been a process I’ve jumped into wholeheartedly. I admit it: I’m a procrastinator.

That being said, the script comes more easily if I give myself time. The more I work at it every day, the easier the lines come. When working to learn a piece quickly, I will read the script in the morning before I’m fully awake and in the evening as I’m falling asleep.

In lieu of reading the script while waking up, sometimes it helps if I go for a run in the morning to clear my head. When I return from the run, I grab the script and start running the dialogue. (I swear that wasn’t an intentional pun.)

Getting my mouth comfortable with the dialogue is immensely important. While I’m learning the script, I say all the lines out loud just to get the dialogue of all the characters in my head. This helps my body with the physical feat of saying the dialogue, while informing my brain about what’s happening in the scene. Again, the trick is to become as familiar with the script in as many ways as possible.

I’ve attempted to record all my dialogue and learn it by listening to it, however, that process doesn’t work as well for me as it does other actors.

As far as running lines with other people (parents / significant others / friends, etc.), it’s not my preferred way to learn the dialogue. The very nature of acting forces the actor to be vulnerable. Asking a friend to run a scene could potentially hurt the actor because the friend could offer an unwarranted opinion which could cause the actor to become more self-conscious than is necessary hindering any chance of vulnerability on stage / camera.

One of the most time consuming, but beneficial ways I learn my lines is by writing out my character’s dialogue, line-by-line, and learning the script one line at a time. I prohibit myself from moving to the next line until I can recite — from memory –everything I’ve written to that point.

I just realized that I don’t like using the term “memorizing” because I favor “learning.” Learning about the story, the character, the dialogue. Memorizing the lines doesn’t put any weight into the process. Perhaps subconsciously “memorizing” seems more like work to me and less of a “learning” discovery.

All of the above focuses on my process of learning lines of dialogue. If you’re curious about how to keep your lines fresh to allow for an “in-the-moment” response, I’d be happy to elaborate!

Lastly, the more you memorize — poems, plays, monologues — the easier learning dialogue will be for you. Your brain is a muscle and needs to be worked-out, too! Try to memorize (learn) something new everyday, even if its the definition on your word-a-day calendar!

What tips would you have for young actors on how to memorize lines?

Don’t procrastinate. Read the script, in some capacity, every day. The sooner you begin retaining the script, the easier the rehearsal process will be.

Every actor learns differently. Some actors work better through table-reads, others prefer getting up on their feet and blocking the piece while doing their initial read-thru. Find what process works best for you and then perfect it.

Don’t become so frustrated with yourself if you drop a line or can’t remember a piece of text — it happens to every actor at some point! Find comfort in knowing you’re not alone! Remember: what you’re attempting do is create art. Art isn’t prefect, it’s a process!

Don’t forget to play, play, play! Have fun!

In the process, you may just find that your character has a lot more going on than you initially thought!

2 thoughts on “Learning Not Memorizing

  1. When it comes to memorization, I also find the most beneficial thing to be writing your lines out. Not only does it aid the memorization process but it can help you to learn the way in which your character speaks, how he/she punctuates their sentences and can help in discovering what words need to be emphasized. Memorization is not just about learning the lines, but grasping the character. I think you got it right when you said it shouldn’t be memorization, but learning.