Learning lines is a core part of the job description for being an actor, but all actors find it difficult, especially when learning new material for an important casting, or when rehearsing a major theatre role.
As a student I really struggled. I would sit for hours, going over and over my yellow highlighted lines, getting frustrated, and reprimanding myself for not being able to remember them. It is excruciating how much pressure we put ourselves under to get 'off-book', while remember blocking, develop a character, and perform.
However, the recipe for learning lines is actually very simple. It's a principle which is the root of all performance, literature, theatre, film, and any other art form you can think of!
I learned the trick when I started working professionally. It helped me not only learn the lines quicker, but it helped my overall performance. It allowed me to listen to other actors, react to them in character, and be a better actor.
As a teacher, working extensively with non-actors, I have found it an essential tool to help them understand the fundamentals of how they communicate as people, as well as helping them learn and develop acting skills.
The principal for learning lines effectively is to understand the thoughts first!
By understanding the thoughts behind each line, we understand what the character wants, where they're going, what they've gone through. Once we understand that, we know the story, and the words will help us tell it.
As a general rule, every line in Shakespeare's plays has a separate thought. If you're clear on what the thought is, and how a line contains thoughts within thoughts, it will help to learn the lines to communicate them.
In terms of technique, again there are a few basic principals to master, but there are no short cuts. Some lines will stick in your head no matter how much time passes, others will disappear completely the second the lights fade on the final performance.
Repetition is a key component - there is no avoiding it. It is time-consuming but essential. Students, like professional actors, will have to spend hours going over and over their text in preparation for a production, and rehearsals won't always allow time to help every student learn lines. However, here are a few exercises you can do which should help:
Listen to the words.
Plays aren't written to be read. They need to be performed. Only by speaking the words out loud can you explore the text, the meaning behind the words, understand the character's journey, their thoughts and emotions.
The way an actor chooses to say a line speaks volumes about your character. Rehearsals offer a great opportunity to play with pronunciation, to relish the sounds, how words can be used to covey thoughts. So, play with them, listen to the sounds of words, and how you can change the meaning of a sentence with inflection, energy, or stress.
Listen to James Spader in Blacklist or Avengers - Age of Ultron. Hear how he plays with words, relishing every syllable.
Working through a text, speak the words aloud. Find as many ways to pronounce them as you can. When you find unusual words, relish them, verbally neon highlight them with. These words were chosen for a reason, don't throw them away.
Your performance may not contain these experimental flourishes, but this approach may help understand them better and identify how best to use them to communicate a character's thoughts.
In pairs, the actor speaks the line and a second actor repeats it as a question, back to the first, giving the first actor opportunities to find the focus of the line, the important stresses, throwaway elements, light and shade, etc
In groups, an actor reads the lines and others challenge them on anything the didn't understand, hear properly, of didn't agree with.
"But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?"
"...through yonder window breaks"
Right Words, Wrong Scene
In pairs, or small groups, set up an improvisation (hair dresser and client discussing holidays, gardener trying to explain why he dug up the rose bushes not the weeds). Then repeat the scene, but only using words from your monologue.
Trying to focus on one task while conducting another physical one. Juggling while speaking lines is a good one (and you develop another performance skill at the same time), but you can also do other physical tasks - improvised group movement, dance, knitting, ironing, etc. In performance actors often have to improvise, set text to movement, interact with an audience, etc. while delivering a speech. The more you challenge yourself to improvise while learning the text, the more versatile you can be with it.
Monologue Slam is an event for actors, usually when they're looking for new agents. The set up is a series of monologues arranged to compliment and contrast one another by a dozen or so actors. Some may share a monologue, others may be performed one after the other, perhaps if they're from the same play.
The format can be used in the classroom by clearing the space and students taking it in turns to deliver their speech. Sit in the round to encourage them to use the space, engage their audience, etc. I've seen this used in professional auditions as a way of playing with ideas, and can be particularly useful if multiple performers have speeches by the same character or from the same play.
Two or three actors may deliver the same speech, one after the other, with different interpretations, energies, physicality, etc. An audience member may be brought up on stage to be another person in a scene, such as Juliet to a Romeo.
This exercise not only encourages playfulness with performance, but also helps students be an active audience, listening and responding to those performing.
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Discover more about Theatre Workout's resources for teachers at theatreworkout.com/resources.
Free monologues for kids and teenagers: https://www.dramanotebook.com/monologues-kids-teenagers/
Complete works of William Shakespeare: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/
Ace your Audition: http://www.ace-your-audition.com/free-monologues.html