SERIOUSLY: LEARNING LINES IS HARD WORK
Possibly my greatest worry professionally is that as I age I might not be able to remember the words my character is supposed to speak on stage. (At least on film, whilst forgetfulness is irritating, there’s always the chance of another take.)
Fortunately, phew and touch wood (oh dear, there’s that superstition thing creeping in) I can still speak the speech as tis writ; or at least I could a month ago when I had to learn a new Murder Mystery role.
My first director, (nowadays I guess he’d be called a “mentor”) taught that one should never learn lines but that they should be “acquired in character.”
He advised us to hook a tricky line to a move or gesture. Finally, he explained that if a line was particularly difficult to acquire it meant that either you did not fully understand it or that the line was poorly written. Our theatre company was called “The Renegades” and we lived up to our name by occasionally altering/cutting lines, even from established playwrights.
Twenty years ago I played Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf which is a mammoth role. Ten years ago I did six weeks touring an Alan Bennett monologue. After both shows many people were satisfyingly complimentary but the most common question I was asked was, “how did you learn all those word?”
Thing is, I’d try to explain, the learning of the dialogue is actually the easy part; the hardest is understanding the character and remaining consistent, performance after performance. The really hard part is listening; listening to other characters and re-acting to them and, in a one person show, listening to the audience.
My advice, if the director will allow it, is not to learn lines until you have started to understand your character and the situation she is in during each scene. The repetition in rehearsal will certainly help nail the simpler lines such as the obvious answer to a question.
There is no trick to learning lines. Basically it’s hard work.
The method I tend to use is the paper sliding down the page one. It’s, usually an envelope, to show the cue line but covering my response. I start at the beginning and won’t move on until the first part is set in my brain. Other people like to start at the end of the script and work backwards or use a recording device or persuade a pal to read the other characters. Apparently there are now “aps” you can get for your phone to help; ah me!
Whichever method works for you, it’s still hard work. Really Hard Work. The sort of Hard Work that needs concentration without distraction. There’s no real magic trick, no substitution for HARD WORK.
Acquiring the skill of line-learning is the same as acquiring any other skill from tap dancing to touch-typing; practise is the key. If you are not currently performing, then practise learning dialogue; challenge yourself by trying to acquire a new monologue or scene once a week.
Oh, and try to enjoy the process of acquiring lines – it can be fun!