Davina made a great observation on Monday when I asked her to make an adjustment in how she was doing the scene. Afterward, she said, “Because I haven’t been practicing it that way, it threw me off, and I had trouble remembering my lines. I guess it’s better to memorize your lines just as words.”
It’s easier to memorize your lines when you have a rhythm, a tempo, a lilt, a melody to put with them. Song lyrics are easy to memorize for this reason. I forget my lines in a play within a month or so of closing, but I have retained hundreds of song lyrics for decades. So if your lines in a play are at all musical, they are easier to memorize.
At some point, we’ll talk about a playwright’s use of “the poetic.” Some playwrights have a talent for using poetic language, or else make intentional use of certain writing “tools” to evoke poetic effects. Paula Vogel and Peter Shaffer come to mind as playwrights who do this.
This literary technique can make lines easier to memorize, because they build “music” into the line. So can attaching a particular line reading to a line. A line reading is a predetermined way of saying a given line. Once you choose it, you have effectively chosen the melody of the line. And when you try to “act” a line while you are working on memorizing lines, you will choose line readings that you will also memorize, whether you realize it or not.
Because you are working on memorizing the line more than you are studying your character, the line reading that sounds “right” to you initially is no longer just a placeholder, a way of saying it so that you can get the words in your head. It is likely that you will say it that way every time you rehearse it, and every time you recite it when you are learning your lines. And if you later learn something about the character that suggests a different way of saying the line is appropriate, you will find it difficult to do so, because your line reading has become ingrained.
I have record albums I have listened to so many times that I not only know in the pause between songs what song is coming next, but I also know the note it begins on. I even know how many seconds come between songs. That’s how much repetition can give you. When your lines are on this sort of automatic pilot, there’s no opportunity for acting to happen.
I’ve known actors who have inadvertently memorized pauses in the middle of their speeches, or directly preceding some of their lines. This happens when they aren’t quite comfortable with the line, and it takes them an extra moment to remember what they are supposed to say. They never make the effort to overcome it, and the pause is in there forever, no matter how much the director urges the cast to speed things up.
So memorize the words without regard to how you say them. Stack them up like railroad cars on the line and just move through them as quickly as possible. When you memorize this way, you leave open all the possibilities for your character. You won’t know which choices are the right ones for your character for weeks, so don’t tie yourself into choices early by choosing how to say the lines yet.