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  • Writer's pictureTim Prasil

"How Do You Remember All Those Lines?"

Updated: Mar 7

There's a question Town & Gown actors frequently hear from audience members, and it's often asked with a dash of astonishment. The question is: "How do you remember all those lines?" To find an answer, I asked a group of those actors to share what memorization strategies they use, and I'll do my best to organize what they told me here.

Dialogue and Learning by Eye or by Ear

Not surprisingly, different actors have different memorization techniques, and an actor might combine strategies. The first is good old-fashioned flash cards. "I like to write my lines with a blue pen on cards," said Courtney Pilkington. "One side has my line, and the other side has the line before." It's as important to know that line before—what's called the cue line—as it is to know one's response to it. Sarah DeYong also uses cards and mentioned the importance of knowing the character's intention behind saying each line: "If I know why I'm saying something, it's easier to remember it, for me."

Maddy Mae Billings put an interesting spin on the flash-card method. Instead of flipping cards, she writes "the first letter of every word down in my actor journal. (I always keep one for every show, writing about the process, character development, notes from directors, etc.)" She went on to explain that the cue line "I fix Hoovers" looks like this: IFH. Maddy's character responds with "What is Hoovers?" and that becomes "WIH?" She starts to have something that looks like this:

Cue: YK, VC…

It might look like gobbledygook, but Maddy assured us that the method "helps my brain get little clues when I don’t know the lines fully yet, without totally giving up and just looking at it in the script." A few of the actors taking the write-it-down route added that using different colored inks provides a handy visual sign of who says what.

Sydney Wehmeyer enacts the flash-card method of learning lines.

A different technique relies on learning by ear rather than by eye. After discovering she could recite almost a whole play by having heard rehearsals over and over and over up in the sound booth, Bonnie Ann Cain-Wood realized that—when acting onstage—she could "record a cast read-through and listen to at least part of it daily." Similarly, using "the voice recorder app on my phone," Cindy Sheets likes to "read the scene, leaving blank spaces for my lines." A few of the actors said they play the recording while driving or doing dishes. The key, of course, is repetition.

Another means of aural drilling—ouch, that's a horrible image! Another way to learn by ear involves persuading someone to read the cue lines and to give little hints for the proper responses when needed. Ryan Winter recommended: "Do it with a friend who can read for you, but make sure they only give you one word at a time."

Christopher Sneed and friend demonstrate how being prompted with cue lines facilitates learning by ear.

Monologues, Chunks, and the Whole Shebang

With typical dialogue, the cue lines themselves provide some help. For instance, if one character asks "How ya doin'?" and the next character replies "Thursday," there's very likely an error somewhere. Monologues present a different challenge. Valerie Thrasher uses note cards for dialogue, but tackles monologues chunk by chunk: "I break my monologues down into smaller sections and just repeat repeat repeat until that section is fully memorized, then I keep adding to it in small chunks until the entire monologue is memorized." Other actors said about the same.

Aaron Carmichael compared line learning, "especially monologues," to music memorization. "You have the words themselves," he said, "but I also take into account the natural rhythm of the words and syllables, the energy level at that particular point in the script, and the pitch that my voice gravitates towards when saying those lines with that energy." Renae Perry also applies lessons from music school: "I learn and drill lines from the end of the play to the beginning, reviewing everything I’ve learned as I go. I read each line aloud, sometimes in chunks, until I feel confident I can say it without looking, and then I alternate saying the line, both looking and not looking to make sure that I’m saying them correctly." Aaron and Renae both emphasized grasping the play as a whole rather than merely as one character's part in it.

Charissa Prchal shares this view, starting with the whole and then zeroing in on details. She explained: "The only way that consistently works for me . . . is reading the entire script all the way through, trying to figure out why my character says what my character says, and why they say it exactly that way—especially when it's different from the way that I would say it—probably three or four times, reading all my lines out loud, starting to create the character using their words, making sure I've highlighted all of my lines, and all of the cues for my lines." She next turns to some of the techniques mentioned above.

Memory Melds with Movement — and What Not to Do

A lot of actors know that line memorization is intertwined with blocking, which is drama lingo for where and how characters move around onstage. Charissa stressed the importance of moving while practicing lines. She learned a whole play in two days while house-sitting: "I could wander all through the house with my script and my 3x5 cards. Whenever I would get to a monologue, I could run around and wave my arms or whatever ridiculous thing was called for, reciting my lines as dramatically as possible." That would've been fun to watch. In fact, during rehearsals at Town & Gown, it's easy to catch an actor not needed onstage reciting lines while gesticulating, stomping, or even sword-fighting out in the lobby.

Andrea Maciula Peters illustrates how movement can assist memorization.

This brings us to a potentially risky but, I guess, ultimately effective method of memorization. It somewhat mirrors immersive language learning, which requires students to completely surround themselves with that language. Kimberly Harrison said, "I get most of my memorization down while at rehearsal, with the other people." To be sure, she combines this with a few of the other strategies, but she added, "Something about actually being in the space with the people makes it click for me." Kim then kidded that this might explain why she's "backstage more than onstage."

The risk rises if an actor counts too much on such immersive line learning. Ben Allen confessed, "My method for line memorization can be mostly summed up as most likely a lesson in what NOT to do, For example, my line study for Theseus/Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream was this: The day I got my script I highlighted my lines, and then proceeded to procrastinate the actual study part of learning them until quite literally the day before we started to go off-book." Off-book is more theater talk, meaning the point when actors are no longer permitted to even glance at the script. Arriving for rehearsal after busy days at work, Ben did the equivalent of cramming for an exam. "By some miracle," he said, "that insane method usually works for me." Pressure can be powerful.

Given the fact that almost all Town & Gown actors have full-time jobs, like Ben, or are full-time students, it is miraculous that they consistently do remarkably well at remembering all those lines! Please keep this in mind when attending upcoming shows—and express your astonishment to the actors afterward. Indeed, many of them probably share that astonishment.

Speaking of upcoming shows, Town & Gown's next production is The Laramie Project, written by Moisés Kaufman and the Members of Tectonic Theater Project, and directed by Deborah Sutton. Performances run first from April 4th through 7th and then from the 11th through the 14th.

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