Learning Your Role
How to be a quick study
by Dr. Ken Plonkey
Stanislavsky on Memory: “A poor memory deprives an actor of creativeness. If he is too intent on remembering lines, he cannot be creative.”
“I think it is very important for an actor to learn his lines,” Spencer Tracy.
There are many reasons why being a quick study (able to learn your lines rapidly) is important for an actor. First, an actor who can be relied upon to learn his lines quickly and accurately is valued by all directors. Second, there are many situations that an actor may work in that make learning lines quickly important. Among these are Summer Stock Theatre where you may be working on more that one play at a time; occasionally your theatre group will be asked to present a play on short notice; in semi-professional dinner theatre you do not get paid for rehearsing, only for the performances, so rehearsals are kept to a minimum; and in motion pictures you have to have the lines learned for each day’s shooting when you come to the set in the morning.
But leaning your lines quickly is only part of the job. You must also learn them accurately. No changes in the wording ot the script is allowed unless the director approves the changes. Therefore, you must learn your lines exactly as they are written. There are several reasons for this. First, your scene partners need their cues and they have studied them as they are written so you must give them as written. Second, it gives you confidence to know you have learned your lines accurately. Third, paraphrasing your lines weakens your role, reduces the uniqueness of your character, destroys the author’s timing and rhythm and makes you look bad in the eyes of someone who knows the play.
You also learn your lines early because you cannot act with the book in your hand. While you are carrying the script you tend to react to the book instead of the situation on state and your focus is more on the book than the other characters. Then, of course, your character is not carrying a script so it gives you bad habits of looking for help where there is none when the script has been carried too long. So you must free yourself from the book and shorten the period of uncertainty in rehearsal. Once the lines are down you can concentrate on the characterization.
Learn your lines early and accurately so you do not struggle to remember them, look for them on the floor or in the heavens above you. Of course a character in a play never struggles to remember his lines, he does not strain physically or vocally, suddenly lose volume, or drop out of character. There are no prompters in today’s theatre during the performances. Therefore when I directed, I never allowed an actor to call for “LINE” during rehearsal. If he gets into that habit, he is quite likely to call for line in performance. Alas, I have seen that happen, and worse.
Lines must be learned no later than half way through a rehearsal period. Accepting a role in a play is giving your word you will learn the role on time. Start at once when you receive your script. My rule was that the actor could carry his script until the second rehearsal after a scene was blocked.. During the blocking, he wrote his movements in his script (in pencil should their be changes) and then he could go home and learn these movements, come back and carry his script once more through the scene and then from that moment on, scripts were down.
“OK,” you say, “now how do I do this quick an accurate learning of my lines?” Well, you actually begins slowly, creating a solid base to build your lines upon. First read the entire script, learning about the character and his place in the story and his relationships with the other characters. Underline your speeches. Mark your cues, the words and actions that prompt your character to speak in a different color from that which use used to underline your lines. Use a dictionary to look up any words you do not understand or know how to pronounce. Mark the key words of your speech in a third color. As you reread the script think about what these markings mean. :”This is my cue, this is my line, and these are the important words in my line.” Look at your cues and at your speeches that follow your cues. If there are identical words or phrases or thoughts from one to the next, make note of them. The Cue,”Where are you going?” The Line, “I am going to the store.” These are a simplistic example of what is called linkages. The word, “going” is in both cue and speech and therefore the line is learned without effort. Create linkages where none exist. Be creative. Cue, “Where are you going?” and Line, “I though you’d like the window open.” Now you have to make up a link. How about “are you going” being an indication that you are moving away from the other person, and in this case toward “the window” to “open” it? Make up a link between the cue and your speech..
Understanding the structure of the play, the scene and the speech can also help you remember the line. It often happens that you will have similar lines at different places in the play. To keep them sorted out and not say the Act I speech in Act III and have to to the entire play again you have to understand the difference in the situation and the line at each point in the play. (BTW, I have seen an play in which an actor gave an Act I response in Act III and the actors actually repeated a large section of the play before they got back on track. The panic among the actors was AWESOME! Knowing the structure of the play, the scene, and the speech will keep you “in the moment” and allow you to respond honestly to the stimuli of the scene.
Shakespeare in Hamlet’s advice to the players reminds us to “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” What he is saying is that we should do the correct gesture or movement for each word or speech we give. Acting out the play physically is called pantomimic dramatization. It consists of acting out the line physically either literally or symbolically. If you do this, it also will help you remember the words. This technique is related to using language origin theories to help you interpret and remember you lines.
The first theory is called the“Yo-heave-ho” theory. It supposes that. language comes from trying to copy actions with vocal utterance. What we say therefore indicated what we are doing or what we are watching being done. Act out what you are saying. Literally do what you are saying in synchronization with saying it.
Another language origin theory that helps the actor remember his lines is the “Onomatopoeia” theory. This theory supposes that language comes from trying to copy sounds with vocal utterance. Make the words sound like what they mean. Many words are ononmatopoetic to begin with. This means their meaning and sound are the same thing. Words like “Bang, Crash, Ding-dong, and tinkle, tinkle, tinkle” for examples. What you do is make up a sound for each of the words in your speeches , except for articles of course. When you say ‘It was a dark and stormy night,” you do so making dark sound “dark” and stormy sound “stormy” and night sound like “night’.
By employing pantomimic dramatization and language origin theory to your lines, you will make them more dynamic and meaningful. They will communicate more clearly and affect more strongly. When you have properly interpreted the lines via language origin theory, you will also have created the motives for the actions the character in committing. Pantomimic dramatization becomes the key to motivated action.
Finally, most actors will agree that recording their cues on a cassette and leaving blank spaces between the cues for their lines is the very best way to practice, as you always have someone cueing you.. And always think while saying your lines and always say them out loud, on your feet and moving about.