Friday 29 June 2012

The trouble with scripts or how to learn your lines

I'm on a train in the Czech Republic on my way back to Ostrava with Dotty who plays Paulina ( my wife's best friend) in the Czech Republic and the part of time in Poland.

However it was only 7 days ago that I got my first cut of the script. This is a source of woe for me for several reasons.
1) I'm quite busy so finding time to learn the script is going to be tough
2) Having worked with Parrabbola theatre company several times I know that time on the ground is very scarce. That's the problem with community theatre. There is so much to do.
Physical locations to work out
Untrained actors to develop
Dances to do
Songs to learn
Foreign languages to master
Costumes and set design to help with
And more, that slips my mind right now.
And not a lot of time to do it

3) and the biggie - if I have a weakness it's learning lines .

I know actors that virtually just have to looks at a script to learn it. I am not one of those.

My students are always asking what the secret is to learning lines and my answer has usually just been repetition repetition repetition . But there has to be more to it than that so I decided to come up with a plan.

How to learn a script by David Monteith - a plan in development

Part 1

When you get the script. Read the whole play through at least 3 times. This serves to get the themes, flavour, atmosphere, locations and characters into your head and start your subconscious working the processes that are part of any script work.

Read the script through for meaning. This is essential in Shakespeare. Not just for words you don't know but for words you think you do. For example the word awful has pretty negative connotations to us, but in Elizabethan English it meant something that filled you with awe - which makes a lot more sense if you ask me. Although when I told my wife I thought she was awful it didn't really go down the way I thought it would!

This is also a really good time to highlight your words with a highlighter pen.

All of this is useful way before you come to rehearse. You don't really want to start learning the lines before you come to rehearsal because you don't want to get locked into a way of doing things or an understanding of your character that doesn't quite mesh with the directors vision of the play as a whole.

Part 2 Learning

Now is time for my new three part method which I like to call The Monteith Method ( lack of being bothered to google has prevented me from discovering of this technique already exists.)

This technique is great if time is limited for you. You know like having to work a day job to pay the bills. It simply involves a 3 part daily goal setting process.

1) Memorise
Set yourself a portion of text that you are going to try to memorise today. It doesn't have to be a big portion. Even learning a small part every day will bolster your confidence in your line learning abilities.

Choose a further portion of text to get very familiar with each day. Try reading that portion 3 times that day. By the time you come to memorise it, your brain will already have started storing chunks of it away.

3)Pre- familiarise - (That's not a word I hear you say - It is now)
choose a further portion of text that you will just read over. No need to worry about re- reading it. This phase just helps to keep the rest of the play present in your mind. There is no need to make any effort to memorise, remember or analyse it. Reading is enough.

Part 3
How to memorise

" but I knew the lines"

This is a cry that has been heard on every stage in the world, probably every actor there has ever been has cried it in despair at one time or another. You did the lines at home, got them down and then when you got to rehearsal, they went the way of the fairies. Oh and contrary to appearances fairies can be real bastards so you don't want anything to go that way.

Well first of, this is where the old adage of " repetition, repetition, repetition " comes in. At the core of learning lines this is unavoidable.

One of the important things to bear in mind here is that the body and the brain loves patterns and habits. If you get stuck in a pattern of learning your lines, you are going to struggle when that pattern changes as the brain will rebel somewhat . If you learn your lines in a comfy chair at home in a comfy cardigan with a glass of wine, your favourite cat on your knee whilst wearing a smoking jacket then the first time you get on stage your brain will wonder where those acctrouments disappeared to and short circuit a little thus rendering those carefully learned lines inaccessible.

So vary things up a bit, make your brain work for you. Learn in your chair by all means but also learn while cooking or ironing or recite while jogging having a bath or even when concentrating on matters of an excreciating nature.

Let's continue to shake it up by trying some of the following methods.
Say it out loud rather than just in your head
Record it and listen back - if you can do this with other members of the cast then all the better
Write out your lines
Learn in silence
Learn to music - in particular find music that suits the mood of the character at that particular moment in the play. In essence give your character a soundtrack.

Part 4 : In rehearsal

Get those little sticky mini note things and stick them in the script where your lines are.

It's very helpful in allowing you to go straight to the pages where your lines are without needless faffing.


If you ignored my advice earlier then do it now and highlight that baby. No not your offspring, I was being streetwise and referring to your script. ( I'm sure thats what urban youngsters call scripts these days...I'm sure). If you are trying to get off book ( rehearse without referring to your script) it means that when you do need to refer to your script it will be easier to locate your position and you won't waste everyone's time by continually asking where we are. If you are a visual person then it will also provide a mental picture of where your lines are on the page and help you remember cues.


Be very careful when learning segments of lines, especially long speeches. The danger is that you will forget the words that join the segments together. If you are a segment learner make sure you practice the whole passage enough times to make sure the join is smooth.

Remembering your cues. One of the dangers of learning your lines is that you haven't learned where your cues are. One way around this is to learn the lines of the other people in your scene. I know actors that do this. I am not one of them, that particular skill is not in my reportoire as yet. At least make sure you have learned the last sentence of your scene partners speech but be careful as this technique may not survive any scene cuts.


Here are a couple of apps that helped me enormously with line learning.

- email a PDF of your script to this app and you a digital script that you can highlight and annotate. You can also record the script as you go. But it's best feature for me is it's ability to blank out the highlighted words, thus negating the need for you to sit on the train looking like a idiot as you drag a book over your script in order to hide your lines in order to test yourself.

learner- in this app you record your lines and the other persons lines. You can then set it to playback the scene omitting your lines to allow you to literally rehearse with the app. Alternatively you can set it to play your lines after a gap so you can immediately check if you were right.

I hope this has been helpful, this is all a technique in development for me. I'll let you know how it goes.

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