Acting in a stage play is a great way to stretch your creativity, learn new skills, and expand your network. You may have seen our recent video about the creative opportunities available in community theater. Maybe I convinced you it’s worthwhile, but the thought of memorizing an entire script is overwhelming. I can’t even remember all the words to “Shake it Off.”
So I’m backstage during rehearsals for “The Mousetrap” at the Cedarville Opera House, sweating over my next entrance. I asked my co-stars if they had any tricks to memorize lines, and given that collaboration is a pillar of creativity, I shouldn’t have been surprised when they gave me great advice. Here are four ways to memorize lines quickly and easily.
1. Obstruct the page.
Lay another book or piece of paper over your script so that you can only see parts of the script at a time, and don’t move the page until you’ve said the next line. This method is the most quiet and unobtrusive on the list, so I do this backstage a lot while waiting for my next entrance. You can fit this into the cracks of your day like waiting rooms or lunch hour. The key is to commit to that obstacle – no peeking!
2. Create a “cue script.”
Write out your lines, entrances, exits, and important actions, along with the lines just before them. There are two benefits to this. First, the act of typing or writing out your lines in a second document is a great way to commit them to memory. Second, a cue script can help you focus only on your part. This makes it easier to pick up on your cues and is less intimidating than the full script – especially if your character speaks only occasionally throughout the show.
Sometimes called “sides,” cue scripts were common in Shakespeare’s productions, when it was too expensive to give each actor a copy of the entire script. You can read more about using cue scripts here.
3. Get a partner.
The hardest part of memorizing lines is doing it word-for-word – tiny details like prepositions and conjunctions often slip through the cracks. And with most stage shows, copyright law requires stage companies not to change any detail of the text, so getting it just right is critical. There’s no better way to hold yourself to that perfect standard then to enlist the help of someone else to follow along in the script as you give your lines. Immediate feedback line-by-line breaks any bad habits you may have picked up while running the lines yourself.
4. Make your own partner.
Record lines from the other characters, but leave blank spaces where your lines should be, so you can fill them in from memory. This is just for you, so the audio quality doesn’t have to be great; most laptops and cell phones have built in microphones and audio recording apps you can use. If you’re more picky about sound quality and editing, you can use Audacity to leave perfect silence and just the right amount of space where your lines should be.
Bring that track with you in the car, to the gym, or wherever you can have your own audio in your ears, and you’ll be in much better shape to pick up your cues and give your lines with confidence.
It’s important not to rely on reading the lines silently. I asked Nat, audio engineer and Flash Fiction collaborator, what he had learned in his experience with audio dramas and stage shows over the last few years. His advice was this: “Practicing lines helps almost not at all unless you say them out loud.”
Yes, you’re going to have to talk to yourself – in the car, in the shower, in the living room, at dinner, probably until the people around you are sick of hearing them. Think of it as drawing your friends into your creative process. I used to spend quite a lot of time yelling at trees when I competed in college-level forensics.
Memorization comes down to repetition and commitment. There’s really no secret to it, so anyone can learn to memorize lines – as Doug said, “Anybody who sets out the time in their evening and just does the work.” So take these four tips and work smarter, not harder, to memorize lines quickly and easily.
For more on how to memorize lines, check out this helpful article from the Chicago Tribune.