3 Line-Learning Tricks, No Memorization Required
Homework is boring. That’s why you went into the arts! But you’ll soon find out—if you haven’t already—that as a professional working actor, homework will follow you for your entire life courtesy of memorizing lines. Luckily, you can learn your lines without ever struggling through memorization again. Here are three tricks that will help you avoid actor homework for the rest of your life.
1. Stop memorizing. Never do it again...seriously. When you pile all that information into your head like you’re cramming for a test, you develop a boring cadence. Line reading becomes a stale melody, an unbreakable rhythm you chant your lines to as if reading from a teleprompter in your mind. It makes for a snooze of a performance and is also the one thing casting directors will always check for by asking, “Can you do it another way?”
If you are learning your lines rote, you’ll be locked into that tune you made up, only remembering the dialogue by recalling what note you are on in this sad little song. We all know this tune; it’s the battle hymn of the crap actor. You’ll also forget where you are in the music if anything changes. Ever go off on your lines when a director makes a simple adjustment? This is why. Personally, have to start the ABC song from the beginning to alphabetize because I have to follow the tune. What a handicap. Good thing I’m a filmmaker and not a librarian.
Never repeat your lines again and again like you’re doing homework, mumbling the preformed line reading to yourself over and over until you know the melody. This is boring as hell and it will take the joy out of being an actor. It’s also the cement factory that will make your work sound canned and fake. Don’t memorize your lines, learn them. And yes, say them word for word.
How can you do this and not memorize?
2. Mark the beats. These are the “notes” you need to follow, the story points that speak to “why” you’re saying the lines at all. So clearly mark your sides right where a change occurs for your character.
This is your beat change or as I like to call them, shifts. This is where something new happens in the material: an entrance, exit, new idea, question asked or answered. It is a little part of a scene. You are breaking the scene down into something smaller by identifying what the writer is on about in that moment, thereby changing something in your performance each time these shifts occur. Now the scene is broken up into smaller pieces and within this smaller piece, this shift, you have physical movement, shifting emotional obstacles, changing actable verbs, and even eyelines set in place as reminders that will guide you through the shape of the scene. Write these decisions down on your pages.
Once this is done, the lines will just come to you. Trust me. But there’s still one more piece of the puzzle.
3. Investigate the material like a detective. If you are finding that this work is boring homework, it’s because you’re not approaching your acting preparation like the exciting process of discovery it truly is. You are finding your way to present this material, a revelation of who you are as an artist. An interpretive artist. That’s right fancy pants, I said artist. And if that’s boring to you, you are no artist! Not if you’re simply looking to somehow spit the lines back out in order. Not if you’re looking for a “way” to say them. A true artist is doing a deep examination as to “why.” An interpretive artist is tasked with rendering the material with a personal perspective and point of view, whatever that might be. And as a filmmaker, I seek alliances with actors whose points of view are of particular interest to me.
Once you’ve done a deep investigation of the text, you’ll have spent so much time with the material that the lines will present themselves as the next logical thing to say in order for your character to achieve his or her objective. That’s all you need to do—beyond hours of rehearsal—if you have done the material justice and made decisions that are justified by the text.
A properly prepared scene requires no memorization; it is learned. It is gleaned during an examination of the story. And that’s the fun part for professionals. If you treat getting the lines down like homework, it’s time to train again because you learned wrong. As a director, I have no patience for actors who aren’t ready to help me tell my stories. I have no use for them. So don’t be useless. Be a true storyteller. The rarest and most valuable actors are this sort. Rare and valuable is what makes something worth money. And every artist could use that more than homework.