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Line. Line! Line?

So, you ask, Gentle Reader, how does Your Humble Blogger go about memorizing lines for a play? I’m glad you asked. No, really, I am.

Of course, as with anything I say about Acting (Acting!) this is all just what I happen to do, which is not to say it is what would work for anyone else, or that it works particularly well for me, nor is it to say that I won’t find something next time that would work better, should there be a next time. In fact, the only reason, really, that I’m giving in to your pestering about it is the hope that someone will chime in with an Even Better Way for me to make use of. Anyway.

The first step, of course, is to read the play. A lot. Over and over and over again, until you really just can’t read it one more time. Not aloud, mind you, at least not much, not particularly aloud at this stage, as it’s (I find) too easy to memorize the sound of the line, inflection and all, and if I do that before rehearsals begin, I find it difficult to play with the other characters rather than just near them. So silently, but often.

The next step, for me, has become typing all my scenes into the computer. I used to write them out longhand, but typing them in has the second benefit of allowing me to print out sides, and then when we get to rehearsing and blocking, I have nice big letter-size sheets (one-sided) to scribble notes on. That’s a side matter, though, the main thing is that copying the thing out makes me look at each individual word, look at each line individually. If I find that something doesn’t type properly, that is, if I keep wanting to type in a different line or different wording, then I make a mental note of it, as I will probably have difficulty remembering the thing correctly later.

Then proofread the typed bit, which of course means more scrutiny of the individual words. Again, if I’ve got something wrong that’s more than a typo, I try to figure out why I’m getting it wrong. If, for instance, I keep messing up the rhythm of the lines, adding more syllables with synonyms or filler phrases, then I have the rhythm of the speech wrong, and am probably getting the character wrong. Or the writer isn’t very good at rhythm. And, of course, I am. No, but sometimes the writer just hasn’t bothered to make the line scan interestingly, and I attempt to force it to do that, as if I were reading Shakespeare or Shaw or Mamet, and it doesn’t always work. Mostly, though, playwrights pay a lot of attention to words, and almost by definition, get them right for the characters they are creating to say them.

Then it’s time to get serious about memorizing. Mostly I do this the good old-fashioned way of reading the line from my notebook, then clutching the notebook to my chest and muttering the line aloud, then going back to the notebook and checking. Over and over. At this point, I am starting to try out different line readings, too, if only by necessity. I do each line a lot of times, then go to the next, then do two or three together, then go back to doing them individually. There isn’t much point in doing longer stretches until I’ve got it line by line.

Once I’m that far, then it’s time to drag in my Best Reader (or other helpful assistant) for reading lines. I attempt, at this point, to only vaguely gesture towards line readings; again the point is not to memorize how the line comes out, but only what the words are, and ideally the order of the words as well. Ideally. Anyway, this is very tedious for everybody, but it’s terribly important to have somebody looking at the script, otherwise I don’t know if I’m learning the correct line or a phantom line I’ve just made up. Usually I find there are several lines I’ve learned incorrectly, and then if I go back in tech week and try to get them right I screw up everything. Not good.

The idea, by the way, for those Gentle Readers who have not done stage acting before, is that you have to get these things not just into your memory as a thing you can remember if you think about it, but in like a catch-phrase, a thing you can’t not remember. If somebody says (to a person of more-or-less my age) “Tastes Great”, I don’t need to say “Less Filling”, but I can’t stop myself from thinking it. That’s the level of memory cues have to be. I can’t be up there thinking what’s my next line, I have to know that when I hear my cue I won’t be able to keep the next line from popping into my head come hell or high water, so I can be thinking about how to keep my moustache from coming unglued. So that not only means reading each line of the play as often as I saw that beer commercial, it means somehow making each line of the play as catchy and memorable as the beer commercial, at least to me.

Which is ever so much easier in a really good play.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

Great topic. It's been years since I had to do this, but I know I did a lot of holding a piece of paper sideways across the script and moving it down the page so I could read the cue and then try to come up with my line. For me, it actually helped a lot to try it and get it wrong and then immediately read the correct text, as if I were digging the space in my brain and then filling it.

I know people who like to tape their lines and listen to the tape, but I never found this useful. It really seems as though one of the ways people are different, one from another, is in which kinds of input are more closely connected to memory. (Smells, of course, are very closely connected to memory for most people, but this isn't terribly helpful for memorizing lines.) Reading is a better way than listening for _me_ to get stuff into memory.

I've known actors who had all sorts of wacky schemes -- one guy who had a whole series of shorthand codes for the purpose of a line, and would tag them all and memorize the tags ("first I say the greeting line, and then the request for help line, and then the intimidation line..."). Others use colors in various ways.

I also used to get my fellow actors from a scene off in a corner and do really fast cue-by-cue readings, with no inflection.

Oh, and -- if you're doing a character that speaks with an accent, it can be really difficult to learn the lines if you don't use the accent, or at least the rhythms and inflections that go with that accent. Irish lines, even if not in dialect, make no sense in an American accent, for example.


Interesting. A minor reason among the many reasons that I was never much interested in acting myself is that I didn't think I could memorize the lines; somehow it hadn't occurred to me that there are techniques for doing so beyond just having a good memory for that sort of thing.

Back in college, when I was taking the Shakespeare & Theory Colloquium, someone (I think Michael B?) gave me the performance paradigm of making the character you're playing be the person who would naturally say the character's lines in those situations. It's obviously not as straightforward as that makes it sound (and especially hard to use that approach to get exactly the right words, as opposed to just the same general idea as the line), but it's an interesting thought from a roleplaying perspective.

I'm curious about the inflections-and-rehearsals thing -- are the actors expected to know their lines well before rehearsals begin? I have vague memories of on-book rehearsals leading to off-book rehearsals, which seems like it would help the actors in learning the inflections along with the lines--I certainly see what you're saying about interacting with the other actors, but the idea of learning lines without inflections seems even harder to me than learning them with inflections.


On the few occasions when I've had to memorize lines, especially longish passages, I've enjoyed doing at least one round of memorization going backwards: first get the last bit, then back up a little and go to the end, then back a little more and have all of *that* down, then start earlier still... To me, it gives each subsequent line a feeling of inevitability once the line before it has entered play.


Jed -- I hope OHB responds to your questions, but I figure I might as well respond too.

Yes, actors should usually know their lines pretty well before rehearsal begins. This will vary, of course, but my sense is that the more professional the production, the more likely this is to be true.

I'd argue that it's not a good idea to learn the inflections along with the lines at all, where by "inflections" I mean, for example, which word in a sentence is emphasized. Maybe "line readings" is a better phrase. I might want to vary the emphasis from one performance to another depending on the mood, the other actors, the audience, whether my mustache has come unstuck, etc. etc.

Some actors (I know that Christopher Walken is one) like to run through an entire scene, improvising lines that express the same intent as the actual lines. There's an interesting bit from Neil Simon's autobiography where he talks about doing the movie of "Biloxi Blues" in which Walken has a great monologue as the insane officer. Walken did an improv version in rehearsal that was terrific, and Simon said "Forget the lines I wrote, use that!" Walken refused -- his goal was to learn the emotional rhythms of the scene and then use the actual text to express them.

Important caveat: I've been in two plays with our gracious host (16 years ago). He is a much better actor than I am. Which doesn't necessarily mean that his insights on technique are more valid, but, yeah, they probably are.


I don't know how I would fare in a production where I was required to know most of my lines before rehearsals start. I have always generally learned my lines as an inevitable part of rehearsing; you hear them enough times and they're just there. I'd usually end up memorizing the rest of the show as well (at least, for scenes I was in or was frequently at rehearsal for), without particularly trying to.

I was in a one-act play a few years ago in which I had to learn most of my lines on my own, since we just didn't have that many rehearsals. Fortunately the show was short and not that hard to learn, but it was the shakiest I had ever felt in a show, memorizationwise.


I’ll take a break from doing the actual work we’re talking about to respond a bit. Much easier, responding.
Generally, yes, there are on-book rehearsals and off-book rehearsals. The purpose of the on-book rehearsals, really, is to allow the actor to make notes, particularly blocking notes, in his or her script, as they go along. Of course, it isn’t actually necessary to have lines memorized until you go off book, but as Jacob says, it’s much more ‘professional’ (supposedly) to begin rehearsals with at least a ready familiarity with your lines. And, of course, that largely depends on how long you have to rehearse, as well as how many lines you have. For Monsieur the Vicomte, if I were to ignore the play until rehearsals begin, I would have no chance of getting the lines really deep into my memory before we need to be off-book. I have a lot of lines. Also, if (which will not happen) I were to be late getting off-book, it would seriously screw up rehearsals, unlike smaller parts I’ve played, when my stumbling around holding a book is less of a big deal.
As for inflections, or line readings, Jacob’s got my feeling about it exactly (and is nicely flattering, too). My take on it is that learning lines for a play is not like learning a monologue; it’s a different kind of memory. Think of it, again, like a catchphrase, like reversing the polarity of the neutron flow. Once it’s in there just as words, you can say them in a variety of different ways, depending on how the scene gets played. It can be funny, it can be (moderately) serious, it can be quick, it can be the focus of the whole scene, it can be a throwaway. I don’t know yet how the scenes will be played, so I don’t know how I will say my lines.
Take (for instance) Valmont’s first two lines, which are greetings: “Madame” and “How delightful to see you, Madame.” The first is to Madame the Marquise, the second to her cousin, Madame de Volange. Valmont is intimate friends with Madame the Marquise, and addresses her briefly, and with Madame de Volange ... well, that’s the thing. Do I already dislike her? Am I just-civil, or am I attempting to be really charming? Is it really a surprise? Am I dismissing her? Am I flirting? Am I starting a conversation or ending one? “How delightful to see you, Madame.” “How ... delightful to see you ... Madame.” “howd’li’f’l’seeyou, Madm.” For me, if I try very hard not to memorize the inflection, then I can be more flexible when rehearsals start. And, of course, potentially more flexible during the show itself, by which I don’t mean (by my preference) throwing curveballs at the other actors and doing it different every night, but not getting thrown off if there is something different, and being able to go with it without going off-script.
That’s the theory, anyway.
Let’s see ... I haven’t tried the backwards memorization technique, which does sound intriguing. Maybe I’ll try that once I think I’ve got it down forward. It sounds better for a monologue than dialogue, though. And for me, Francis, memorizing during rehearsal is a terrific way to get my approximate dialogue in my head, after which I will never, ever, ever be able to get the right words in the right order. I am already very bad at that, and in my second page of dialogue I have just begun to memorize I have a ‘that kind of thing’ that I for some reason am unable to say properly. It’s ‘that sort of thing’ or ‘things of that sort’ or ‘things like that’ or ‘and so on’—all of which would get me to the next line, sure but would be a Betrayal of my Art.
Oh, and I like the Biloxi Blues anecdote; it sounds a lot like the ‘greeting line and then the intimidation line’ stuff. I can well imagine using that for interpretive help, but it wouldn’t help me remember the damned words nohow.
Thanks,
-V.


Fascinating; even after y'all's descriptions, I'm not sure I can imagine what it would be like to memorize words without inflections. To me, inflections are tightly bound up with the words; I can, of course, see that they can change with circumstances, and with director's directions, and with what other actors are doing, and so forth, but I don't think I have an uninflected state for words (in sentences). (Well, okay, I can imagine speaking in a flat monotone, but I find it a lot harder to keep meaning associated with words in a monotone.) I'll have to think about this more.

In the mean time, I have a perhaps related acting question (only now I have a vague notion that V. may have answered this at some point in the past, but I'll ask anyway): Don't actors in long-running shows get bored? I would think that somewhere around the 200th time someone performed Cats, say, they would start (a) finding it impossible to get any pleasure out of the performance, and (b) finding it impossible to get the performance out of their head even when offstage. I heard someone on the radio being interviewed about this kind of thing—she was apparently part of the cast of Riverdance, and the brief bit I heard gave me the impression that she mostly viewed it as a boring job, to be gotten through every day. I don't even like listening to the same songs every day; I think saying the same words every day for a year would drive me nuts, much less multiple years. I know there are things you can do to liven it up (like the throwing curveballs you mentioned), but it does seem like a possible difference between professional stage acting and most other forms of acting.

But then, I'm talking through my hat here.


Cats is a musical, so you get to sing the same songs again and again rather than recite the same lines. It's the same difference that allows us to listen to a song on the radio 200 times but read a book only 5 times before boredom, and the reason people buy music but borrow audiobooks. It's also tied into why musicals on Broadway run for years, and dramas run for weeks or months. We just don't get bored with text set to music in the way we get bored with text by itself.

When you're trying to memorize a particular word choice which does not come naturally, it might help to get hyperanalytical and obsessive about the word choice, read the OED entry on kind, reflect on the fact that the character is particularly kind or unkind when saying that, think about Hawaiian pidgin "kine" meaning thing and wonder if the phrase "da kine of thing" isn't insanely redundant, etc.

Or to tie these two comments together, start filking "that kind of thing" into every kid's song and Christmas carol you can, and you'll have the phrase locked in so tight you'll never get it out of your head.

Oh, you better not shout, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why, Santa don't like that kind of thing...


Great question, Jed. As far as acting goes, I wouldn't know, but I've been in a singing group that performed much the same set of songs several times a week for months. After a while, the songs stop becoming notes and lyrics to remember, or to sing with proper technique, and turn into the medium by which you connect with the audience. It's a palpable feeling. Which is the crucial point-- if you were performing to an empty room, no way could you do it over and over for months.

But yeah, I remember going to a matinee performance of Les Miserables and thinking, as I left the hall in tears, that these people did the same show last night, and would do it again that night (two shows a day on weekends) and yet were clearly giving their all. That may be what marks a professional.

As I think about it, I find myself comparing it to doing a particular folk dance -- say a simple, popular Scottish dance like "Flowers of Edinburgh". At first you're trying to remember the figures. Then you've got the figures down so you concentrate on making the footwork perfect. Once you don't have to think about that, you can work together to make the flow of the entire set perfect -- everyone hits their spot exactly on beat, all dancers are perfectly spaced during the circle, etc. And through all of this, of course, you're flirting, playing, and connecting with the other dancers. There's always something to improve.


I can't speak to Jed's question, since I've never been in a show longer than eight weeks, four shows a week. I have seen shows that had been running for years and many of the actors appeared to be just walking through, and other shows that had been running for years and the actors appeared to be really into it.
I also think I would rather say lines from The Mousetrap eight times a week than answer the phone "Goodman, Proctor and Hoar, how may I direct your call?" eighty times a day. Particularly since hardly anyone applauds the receptionist.
Thanks,
-V.


I also think I would rather say lines from The Mousetrap eight times a week than answer the phone "Goodman, Proctor and Hoar, how may I direct your call?" eighty times a day.

Oh, *shudder*. There was an era of my life when the phone would ring at home in the evenings and I would pick it up with the words "Standard Desktop help desk, are you calling about an open ticket?" leaping to my tongue.


I'm still at the stage where I confuse my cues and can't remember which line follows which--do I say "Linguistics Department" when the phone on my desk rings? What about when my cell phone rings, if it's on my desk? What about when my kitchen phone rings, if I've just come home from work but haven't taken off my office-key lanyard?


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