The 3 Fastest Ways to Memorize Lines

From Matt's recent article in Backstage


What’s the best way to memorize quickly? Perhaps you have 12 pages of sides for a callback tomorrow morning, or you have to memorize a two-hour play in a week because someone just dropped out, or maybe you signed up for a casting director pay-to-meet, and at the last minute decided to memorize a really overdone monologue from “Mean Girls.” (Just me?) 

You have no idea how you are going to learn the lines this quickly. Maybe you’ve tried putting the script under your pillow hoping to learn the lines by osmosis (doesn’t work), or you’ve tried having your four roommates sing your lines to you at three in the morning (totally creepy). You’ve tried everything, and it doesn’t work. What do you do? The old method of covering your lines with your hand never seems to work, as the lines always feel like they are on the surface, and not ingrained—sort of like cramming for a math test—and will be out the window the second you finish. 

I’ve tried many different ways over the years, and I found these are by far the quickest ways to memorize lines.

1. The Rehearsal 2 app. This is hands down my favorite way for actors to learn lines. It’s the scene partner that never gets tired of running lines with you. If you can get past the fact that it’s $19.99, this is a game changer. You can highlight the lines in the app, record the other character’s lines, and use it as a teleprompter, which will scroll through the script as you are reading it. Then it just keeps playing on a loop. The secret for me is to whisper my lines and read the other character’s lines out loud when I’m recording, so I don’t get too caught up in the way I’m saying my lines, but I know how much time I have to say them. I will literally put my iPad on a chair and pretend I’m running lines with someone. It’s so much better than a tape recorder. Love it. (Time: Approx. 30 minutes for a 12-page scene.)

2. Write them out. This is quicker than you think, and you always remember the lines word for word when you are done. I have used this for memorizing longer scenes with lots of speeches. I find this works really well because you are connecting your mind to the action of writing the lines down and seeing the lines at the same time. They seem to go to a deeper part of your brain. I prefer writing them by hand instead of typing. 

Write out just your lines in one big paragraph, then run through the scene out loud. Then do this five more times, breaking your lines into thoughts each time. The last time you write them out, see if you can do it without looking at the script, and just think of the other person’s lines. What’s great about it is that you aren’t memorizing what the other characters are saying, and can really listen in the scene and not anticipate the lines. (Time: Approx one hour for a 12-page scene.) 

3. Run the lines with someone many times. Preferably an actor, not your friend who was an extra on “Blue Bloods” one time, likes to coach you, and keeps reading the stage directions out loud. The first time you run through it, just listen to the words. Focus on pausing between each line, really absorbing what’s being said and going over the scene many times in many different ways, playing with intention, actions, and pacing. Try it sitting and standing, and allow yourself to make mistakes and explore every way not to do it, while also getting more and more comfortable with the lines. Focus on the “why” and the circumstances, which will help you learn the scene on a deeper level. If you forget your lines, you can find your way back because you really understand what’s going on. (Time: Approx. 30 minutes to an hour.)

Personally, I usually use a combination of these three techniques to prepare for every audition. I will write down the lines, then run them with the Rehearsal 2 app, then with another actor, during which time I will speed through them as fast as I can (the real test to see how well you know them). After that I will improvise the lines, and see if I can come up with some added moments and reactionsbetween the lines that feel authentic to me, in a way that I would say them. Then I layer the writer’s words back on and blend it all together. This way, I am memorized, but also flexible and open to direction and change.

At the end of the day you want the lines to seem like second nature, genuine and authentic, as if they are coming from a real person with real thoughts and ideas. Auditions cause anxiety, and while you may have them memorized at home, when you walk into the room it’s easy to get distracted and forget. As actors, we need to prepare for this, and be very, very memorized (but not locked into a pattern), so that we are confident, relaxed, committed, listening, and open to direction.