Three-and-a-half years after returning to acting, I remain fascinated by the process of learning lines.
Back in 2014, after I finished performing in Third—the play that marked my return to the stage—I began researching the subject of line-learning. The two pieces of writing that resulted from that research (an annotated bibliography and an essay) are ones that I wrote primarily as models for my students. But the research, itself, is work that I would’ve done anyway. Chalk it up to my enduring interest in the subject.
I’m not sure what I expected to find, other than some examinations of best practices. Reading the lectures of Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, Sanford Meisner, and Lee Strasberg momentarily gave me a seat in the classrooms of those great acting teachers, but it didn’t offer much about the practice of line-learning, itself. Similarly, reading a research article on acting and cognitive functioning led me into the lecture halls of its coauthors—one a professor of psychology, the other a professor of theatre—demonstrating that acting may enhance memory, but not revealing how anyone actually learns lines.
So how do we do it?
I was too nervous—and too busy trying to remember my lines—to ask myself that question when I was in rehearsal and performance back in 2014. Only afterward could I begin the research that led to the essay that opened with these words:
How do actors learn their lines? It’s not the same act of memorizing that we perform as students when we commit to memory the steps of photosynthesis for a biology midterm. Actors learn lines to repeat them over and over in performance after performance, and yet must do so as if they have never spoken them before, to create ‘the illusion of the first time’ (Stanislavsky qtd. in Strasberg 35). Earlier this semester, I managed to learn lines for a play and repeat them in six performances, but I still don’t know how I did it. In fact, it was only after the play closed that I could bring myself to count the words. I was curious to know how many I’d memorized, but if I had counted them before I’d learned them, the process of memorizing would have been too daunting. And counting them during the run of the play could have undermined my performance; dwelling on how many words I was keeping in my head might have made me more prone to forget.
So how did I learn those 1,567 words and remember them?
Fast forward to late April 2017, when I found myself cast in a role that required me to learn more than twice that number of words—yes, more than twice. After I picked up my script from the theatre, I began my ritual of cutting and pasting, literally cutting and pasting photocopies of my lines onto three-by-five note cards.
When I began cutting and pasting lines for my twentieth card, panic set in. The most lines I’d ever learned had fit onto twenty-two note cards. I was on card twenty, and I wasn’t even halfway through. How many cards would I have, and how would I ever learn all of these lines?
When I cut and pasted the last lines, I was on card fifty-two. If only I had a year, I thought. One card per week seemed manageable.
Somehow I did manage to learn all of those lines in matter of weeks—not months, or anything close to a year—though I’d feared that all those words (which I still haven’t counted) would far exceed what my brain could store and retrieve.
An earlier draft of these reflections included a list of guidelines I’ve developed. As I revised, I omitted them to avoid prescribing my own idiosyncratic process. Suffice to say, the ritual of cutting and pasting lines, as time consuming as it is, is worth the effort for me. As I cut and paste the words onto note cards, I sense that I am beginning to internalize not only the character’s speech patterns but also the structure of the play.
Though my research and ruminations haven’t taught me how I learn lines, I have developed a keener sense of what draws me back to the process again and again. As with writing, it’s the words. And as I wrestle now with these words on the page, I find myself hoping to be fretting over another stack of note cards soon.
Strasberg, Lee. A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method. Ed. Evangeline Morphos. Little, Brown, 1987.