How to Memorize Lines

Tips and Techniques for Actors

Man holds script in empty theatre
Learning lines is a big part of an actor’s job.

Zack Seckler/The Image Bank/Getty Images

How do those actors and actresses memorize hundreds of lines? How does someone commit all those fancy Shakespearean lines from Hamlet to memory? Memorizing lines takes practice and constant repetition. However, there are a few ways to make the memorization process run smoothly and quickly.

Read out Loud (And Repeat, Repeat, Repeat)

For most performers, there is no short cut to memorizing lines. To learn lines, an actor must recite the play out loud, over and over again. Most rehearsals encourage this by “running through the lines” or having a “read through.”

By the time opening night arrives, most actors have spoken their lines hundreds of times. In addition to constant repetition, consider these supplemental techniques:

Listen to Your Cast Members

Sometimes inexperienced or poorly trained actors spend rehearsals staring blankly at fellow performers, waiting patiently to deliver their next line. Instead, they should be listening attentively, responding in character at all times.

This careful listening will not only generate a better performance, but it will also help actors learn lines because the context of the dialogue becomes absorbed. Pay attention and the other person’s lines will serve as cues or “memory triggers” during the performance.

Record Your Lines

Because there is often not enough rehearsal time, many performers find ways to listen to the play’s dialogue during everyday activities. Turn your workouts, chores, and recreational activities into a “read through” with the help of your headphones and electronic devices. Aside from constant rehearsals, this method seems to be the most popular way to memorize lines.

Use a voice recorder to capture the lines from each relevant scene. Some actors prefer to record the lines of all the characters, including their own. Then, they not only listen intently, but they speak all of the lines. Others opt for recording the lines of fellow cast members, but they leave a blank space so that they can insert their dialogue while listening to the recording.

Monologue While Motoring

If your commute to work is twenty minutes or more, then your automobile can become a makeshift rehearsal space. For one, it’s a nice private place to listen to your recorded dialogue. Then, when you have the basic dialogue and monologues down, you can perform as your putter your way through traffic.

The acoustics in your car might be lousy; however, it’s a great place to guffaw, growl, or shout your lines, getting them nicely solidified in your memory bank.

Get up and Move

Whenever possible, incorporate your stage directions while you speak your lines aloud. According to a scientific study conducted by psychologists Helga and Tony Noice, the combination of movement and speech strengthens a person’s ability to recall the next line.

Here’s how Ms. Noice explains it: “Memory is aided by physical movement. In one study, lines learned while making an appropriate motion — e.g., walking across a stage — were more readily remembered by actors later than were lines unaccompanied by action.” So, during the early stages of learning the script, make certain you accompany your lines of dialogue with appropriate movements and gestures. Of course, this tip might not be helpful if you are playing the paralyzed protagonist from Whose Life is it Anyway. But for most roles, the Noice team has provided excellent advice.

Think Positively and Don’t Panic

Don’t let the butterflies in your stomach torment you too much. Most thespians experience stage fright minutes, hours, even weeks before opening night. While a certain amount of nervousness can get the adrenaline going, too much anxiety over lines might hinder an actor’s performance.

Actors forget lines now and then. It happens. When it happens, however, most of the time the audience never notices. Forgetting a line is only disastrous if the performer breaks character.

So, if you forget a line in the middle of your performance, don’t freeze. Don’t get flustered. Don’t look out to the audience. Don’t call out, “Line!” Stay in character. Keep the scene going to the best of your ability, and with the help of your fellow cast members, you will get back on track.

Take solace in the fact that if you forget a line once, you will probably never forget that line ever again. Sometimes embarrassment is the strongest and toughest method of memorization.