Backstage Experts Answer: 18 Ways to Quickly Memorize Lines

Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

When asked for audition advice, many actors will tell you, “Know your lines as well as possible. That way you’re free to focus on everything else without holding a script.” Sounds simple, right? But what if your audition is tomorrow, or in three hours? How can you memorize your lines as quickly as humanly possible?

As industry professionals spanning various areas of the business, our Backstage Experts know a thing or two about this topic, and have decided to share their tips with you. This week we asked them:

How can actors memorize lines quickly?

Here are 18 methods you can try!

(And if you missed the last installment of this column, check out “Should Working Actors Get Tattoos?” and see how to get your acting questions answered at the bottom of this article!)

Paul Barry, L.A.-based acting teacher and founder of Acting 4 Camera
1. Check out the myths about memory here and give yourself a fighting chance by dispelling them immediately.

2. Accept that your memory is already much better than you think, because I promise you, it is.

3. Realize that scripts are merely a string of sentences, and that each sentence is just a grouping of images, ultimately used to convey story and meaning. If you can picture an image for each key word or phrase, then you can connect those images as you might links in a chain. (See No. 3 in my article above for a fun example.)

4. Spend at least 50 percent of your rehearsal time on the most difficult parts, even if they only represent one percent of the entire script or scene.

5. Read my e-book, “Choices.” The first chapter alone will change how you think about memory forever.

Cathryn Hartt, founder of Hartt and Soul Studio
There are several tricks to make memorization a piece of cake.

1. From the very first time you see the scene, read it like a good novel and imagine yourself in the scene as if it were real. This will already start making the reality and flow of the scene make sense to you. Make sure you understand what is making you say your words and what causes you to transition from one beat to the next.

2. Take one little section at a time. Start with the first section and go until it makes sense to make a big shift and work on that one area. Then, go away for a short time. When you come back, go over that first section and then go move to the next section. Keep taking breaks often.

3. Move while you memorize. It helps you to remember easier.

4. Tell yourself it is easy to memorize. Positive thinking!

Philip Hernández, NYC-based audition coach
First, figure out what you want in the scene. Then identify the events that move you toward or set you back from getting it. New events require you to adjust your thinking in order to continue getting what you want. Think of each adjustment as a new section in your train of thought.

Having a train of thought that make sense to you rather than thinking about dozens of individual lines to memorize is more manageable and makes memorization much easier. It’s a bit like the idea bullet points. You can remember an entire speech because you only have to remember five bullet points, not 1,000 words! Understand your train of thought and the individual lines will come faster. To learn more read my article, “How to Learn Your Lines Without Memorizing!”

Kate McClanaghan, L.A.-based casting director
Learning lines quickly is a matter of conditioning; it takes practice. The more you do it, the better you get at it. Visualize what you’re talking about, rather than focusing strictly on how to say it. If you have very little imagery in the text you’re attempting to commit to memory, flex your imagination. Imagine what the language in the text reminds you of, then picture each thought using as many of your senses as possible to recall each thought (each line). In other words, picture what you’re talking about with as much sound, movement, and imagery as possible. Walk around your room and place each thought in a different spot as you do. This engages sight and your own movement as well, and explains why we learn our lines best when on our feet. The results may astound you.

Killian McHugh, commercial casting director and founder of Killian’s Workshop and Actor’s Gym
Actors shouldn’t be memorizing lines. Memorization is not acting. You cannot simply memorize a Shakespeare play and then regurgitate it on stage. You can do that, but no one will come to the second show. At Killian’s Workshop, I am vehemently against that word. Just like in Shakespeare, once you understand the meaning behind the words, then his words flow freely as if they are the actor’s own words. Memorization is also not comprehension. Just because an actor memorizes a sequence of words doesn’t mean they understand the words—that’s why actors can be thrown off so easily in the room when they flub or mispronounce a word.

Retta Putignano, founder of Create Your Reel
There are many ways in which to memorize lines, and figuring out which one works for you is imperative. I use a couple of devices. To start, once I’ve read through everything, I cover the script, and go through line by line. If I forget a line, I go back to the top until I can get through the entire page without peeking. Once I can achieve that, I go for speed. I also tend to have a photographic memory, so I envision where the line is on the page, when a new page starts, etc. and that can be helpful for recall. If there’s blocking, I memorize using that physicality, which tends to help connect the line and the intention behind it. And of course, repetition and practice are key. Memory is a muscle that needs to be exercised.

Mae Ross, founder of 3-2-1- Acting Studios
The most obvious tired and true method is repetition, repetition, repetition. But for some actors repetition is not enough. To get more support, rehearse with another actor or anyone who is willing to help. They don’t have to be a great actor. In fact, having a rehearsal partner read monotone will prepare you to work with an untrained reader.

No time to rehearse with a person? Line-learning apps have become increasingly popular to help you memorize. I recommend Rehearsal, the App.

The oldest trick in the book is to hand-write all the lines down on a piece of paper. And then do it again. This sound tedious, yes, but it works.

Actors have different learning styles, Some are visual. Others learn best by hearing. Many by doing. And some are tactile and respond well to writing things down.

Try all the techniques above and figure out what works best for you, and run with it!

Denise Simon, NYC-based acting coach
Repeat, repeat, repeat. This is the best way to condition your brain quickly. Highlight the character’s lines. This will allow you to quickly locate the appropriate line when glancing down at the paper. Break the lines down into smaller pieces. Don’t tackle the entire script all at once. Break the script down into small sections and repeat, repeat, repeat until the lines are ingrained. Work on lines before going to sleep. Studies have shown that studying lines right before bed can have a big impact on recall. Be sure to review them again in the morning to help lock them into memory.

John Swanbeck, director-author
Try memorizing images instead of lines. It’s a technique I use whenever I’m directing actors to play Shakespeare or any material that employs imagery or descriptive language, but it works with all material as long as the actor has an imagination. I’ve seen actors use it to memorize entire acts of a play in a weekend. Simply associate a specific image or visual with each of your lines and your lines will come to you much faster. It’s because the mind remembers images faster and better than it does words. Obviously, it helps if the material is of a certain nature, but you can take even the most ordinary, boring dialogue and associate images with it as long as you have an imagination. Worth a try!

Ryan R. Williams, L.A.-based on-camera coach, founder of Screen Actors System
I train the actors at Screen Actors System to never “memorize.” It’s not school. Don’t cram. You need to know the lines deeply. How much information have you memorized for school tests? Forgotten. Worthless. Now recall a true story from your own life. Easy. Think of the words as part of your story, because in fact, they are.

Don’t get me wrong, as a director and writer I expect you to be word-perfect. A contradiction? No.

Just learn the lines this way: Conduct a full text analysis of the scene. Identify all the beats. Chose your objectives, points of focus, tactics, and consider the emotional obstacles. Mark them on the page. Investigate your character’s backstory. By no means should you repeat the lines out loud over and over again. This will only cement the lame rehearsal delivery.

By the time you know the scene as a dramatist, you will have learned the lines organically. Memorization is a bore. Exploring material is exciting. Even if I only had 15 minutes, I would still work it in this way.

Do this. Let go. And you will know the lines.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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