Learning Lines

We’ve just started rehearsals for the latest Next Best Thing Productions play – Shakespeare’s Richard III (I play Lord Buckingham, Dicky’s best mate. Or, in Will’s words “a sort of cross between Goebbels and Göring”). I realised during our last performance (when I only had a couple of paragraphs to learn) that I’m starting to discover some useful strategies and mnemonics for that bane of all actors, line-learning. Here are a few of my methods, in the hope that they may prove useful to someone somewhere.

To start with, don’t worry about the daunting task ahead of you. The first 2, 3, 4, 5 or even 6 times you read the script, you should do just that. Read through it, and try not to be put off by the fact that one day soon, you’ll have to know all of this by heart.

After a couple of reads, you should start to get phrases and sentences into your short-term memory. Read through a line, and then try to recite it back in your head without looking at the page. If you can’t manage a whole line, do it with a few words, then the next few words, then try to string together the whole sentence. But don’t get too caught up in any particular part: if you’ve gone over the same sentence ten times and the words are still eluding you, move on to the next sentence or take a break.

As you start to become more familiar with the text, try looking at it from different perspectives, and from both semantic and syntactic points of view. This is where the really effective, deep learning comes from. Don’t just think of it as a sentence in a play. Examine each word. Think of its meaning. Think of another word that could serve in its place, and/or of another thing which could be meant by the same (or similar sounding) word (I often find that doing this reveals to me a lot about the playwrite’s intentions, and why they chose one specific word over another). Then ignore the word’s meaning(s) and look at the structure of the sentence. One very good way of doing this is to just look at the first letter of each word. Say the letters, either (or both) by name (Ay, Bee, See) or phonetically (with “nursery style” a, b, c sounds). Try pronouncing the imaginary word formed by the first letters of each word in the sentence. This mnemonic is incredibly helpful towards the end of script-learning, when you have the bones of a sentence in your head but keep substituting incorrect words.

Basically, think of as many different approaches to the text as you can. Play games, have fun with it. Reverse the words in the sentence if you want to, or think of words which rhyme with them. Every different approach you use strengthens the memory of the lines in your head. On top of this, it’s a lot more fun than just reading and re-reading the same old words over and over and over again.

Context helps too: I tend to read my lines while walking the dog, for several reasons. Firstly, it removes most external distractions (apart from the obvious ones such as crossing the road safely and avoiding walking into trees). Secondly the time I spend walking the dog (about half-an-hour) seems, to me, to be about the right length of time to spend line-learning: much longer than this in one chunk and my mind starts to drift. And thirdly… well, it kills two birds with one stone 🙂 Oh yeah, I think something about walking at the same time as reading is also better for mental recall than just staying sedate in a chair or bed.

When I started on the Shakespear, I had expected it to be harder work than previous plays, because of the archaic language. Actually, I find the opposite is true. The frequent use of poetic devices: rhyme, alliteration and, in particular, iambic pentameter, mean that many of the mnemonics I use for line-learning are already built into the core text.

One other thing I have learnt through studying drama: a good text just keeps on revealing new things to you, no matter how familiar you become with it. When I played the title role in Molière’s The Miser (l’Avare) many of my realisations about the character and the plot came in the week running up to the performance of the play, when I already had my lines well under my belt. This is a wonderful thing to experience, but it also makes me a little sad: often when I read a novel, I find myself wanting to read it a second time as I know that many subtleties eluded me the first time around. Very rarely do I actually find time for a second reading, but my experience with plays has made me feel that sometimes, if I were able to read the book so many times that every word became imprinted on my memory, only then would I fully appreciate the author’s craft.