Preparing for a Role: “How Do You Memorize All Those Lines?”

lines Ah WildernessIt’s the most common question I get as an actor from those who have never been on stage: “How do you memorize/remember all of those lines?”

There are two important things that are true about memorizing lines:

  1. You’ve simply got to do the work of memorization.
  2. There are tricks that make the work easier than you might think.

Make no mistake. Memorization does takes time and effort. You sit with your script and go over the lines again, and again, and again. I will sometimes say the line until I can repeat it perfectly, then repeat it 10 – 20 – or 30 times in a row. There is no substitute for repetition.

What those who have never been on stage do not realize is that the entire acting process does make it easier. It’s not as if you’re memorizing totally random words or thoughts. The lines you’re memorizing are generally part of a conversation. As you internalize the context of the situation/conversation the lines tend to flow naturally. If another character on stage asks your character a question, your line is the logical answer to that question. Your brain follows the order of the conversation and the line becomes like a piece of a puzzle. “This line,” the brain reasons, “fits perfectly at this point in the conversation.”

In addition, when you “block” the scene (determining when and were you move on stage) certain movements or actions become linked to a line or lines by your brain. “When walking over to the table, you’re supposed to say this,” the brain remembers.

Typically, the memorization process requires help. For our production of Ah, Wilderness! there are four stage managers who make themselves available to “run lines” with the actors. Having a wonderful wife who is a capable actor in her own right, I have the luxury of a partner who understands the need to run lines and is typically happy to do so.

Technology also affords actors simple and inexpensive tools. Using a cell phone or computer, you can easily record a “cue track.” You or another person read the line immediately preceding your line and then your line. I have an iTunes playlist of the cue track for all of my lines in Ah, Wilderness! When I’m driving or doing mindless chores around the house I play the cue track on my iPhone and listen to my lines over and over and over again. My car and iPhone also provide me with a “pause” button so I can listen to the cue line, hit pause, then try to say my line from memory.

Ah Wilderness Cue Track Sample

In the rehearsal process, you’re usually allowed to have the script (a.k.a “book”) in your hand through the blocking and working process of a scene. The rehearsal schedule will tell you when you have to be “off book” for particular scenes. One you’re supposed to be “off book” you can’t have your script with you, but for a period of time you can “call for lines.” If you forget your line you simply say “line” and a stage manager or production assistant is following along and will feed you the line. As you near performance, you are no longer allowed to call for lines and if you forget the line you and your fellow actors are required to figure it out in the moment.

Of course, the process of going “off book” is a natural stressor for actors in any production – but I think that those who’ve never been on stage imagine it to be harder and more stressful than it actually is. The repetition of rehearsals the the natural flow of the process make line recall easier than many believe it to be.


8 thoughts on “Preparing for a Role: “How Do You Memorize All Those Lines?””

  1. Got a reply to this post on Facebook from Jonathan Swenson of and it was just too good not to share:

    “Enjoying your series on preparing for a role. re: Memorizing Lines… I also work with a cue track.. but I record everyone else’s lines but mine.. in the scenes I am in… and then leave enough space in the recording (silence) for me to fill in the line. That way I am forced to not hear my own line.. but to memorize it. The secret is to not rush the silence when recording.. but if you quietly say the line in your head…at an average pace, it usually works fine… OR … it helps you be able to do speed running of lines… if you accidentally rush the recording. I don’t say the name of the character in the other lines.. just the lines… to try to make it as close to a performance run as possible.

    Of course, I can’t use it until I have the lines fairly memorized… which is everything you wrote about … in terms of process. But then, at that point.. I find this last piece really helps me drill them… especially after age 40! I run the lines at least once each day of the run… as I am shaving, showering, driving, whatever… just to keep them fresh so I can focus on other things… get lost in the character, etc.”


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