Saturday, 29 December 2012

Line learning

It is a minor complaint amongst actors, a tiny grain of sand in the oyster of love for the audience, that the aspect of a performance that draws the most comment is often the feat of memory involved in line learning. 'Really?' thinks the actor, 'that was what you guys were focused on when I was out there getting my heart/arm/back broken? But that is just a result of physical repetition, a small tool in my technical armory. I feel so unappreciated and misunderstood'.

Anyone watching a play is bound to be impressed by the apparently smooth way in which the actors leap around the text, with iambic pentameter or Pinteresque pauses, seemingly holding the entire play in their heads. But most actors regard learning the lines as the first stage of the process; it is not until they have committed the text to memory that they can truly discover the performance they want to give. This is the ideal and the reality, for most actors, is somewhat different.

Of course, the challenge of learning the lines varies from job to job. If you are working in film, the dialogue is often sparse, it is a visual medium and it is often only in one or two scenes that the lead actors will be required to learn anything particularly epic (speeches that frequently fall into the 'I had a puppy' category as defined by David Mamet). The film actor still has to learn lines, but the trick for them will be to play with the form and make it their own, so that the audience will hardly notice that what is being spoken was scripted. This is not a question of changing the words, but of breathing the character's life into them, although famously the scriptwriter has more liberty taken with their work than the playwright. Also, the pace of filmmaking is glacially slow, two or three pages of script, on average, a day. So there is plenty of time to get familiar with the dialogue.

In television, you will often be working within a genre. There may be technical language to get grips with, such as medical or police jargon that needs to flow seamlessly. The pace is faster and if you are the lead in an ongoing series, time will have to be spent at the end of every long shooting day, learning the next day's lines. But that will be usually be it; about five to ten pages a day, unless it is a soap and then you enter a different realm. Soaps often get filmed in blocks, with colour-coded teams shooting each week and actors going from set to set for various episodes. They may have six episodes in their head at any one time, more if they have to do reshoots or pick ups. But the lines will be scene length, a few pages long. The actors do not need to learn whole episodes at a time.

Then there is theatre, where the actor actually does need to learn their entire part during the rehearsal period. Some actors like to get to grips with the lines before they start rehearsing but this is often not practical for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they may not be cast until quite late and secondly, because learning the lines completely out of context is quite odd, like memorising random items on a conveyor belt. When the movements of your character and the faces of the other actors become known, then the lines start to make sense. For this reason some actors deliberately try not to learn their part before they have thoroughly explored the play in rehearsal; they want the lines to be integral to the interpretation of the character.

So, what about the actual learning? It is exquisitely unexciting. There are some variations in technique, for example dyslexic actors will record their lines (how much easier now we are digital), and then listen to them or record the other character's lines and fill in their own according to their taste. Some actors like to write out their part by hand as they become more familiar with the words, because the physical act of writing the lines down helps to strengthen the memory.

But the main way of learning lines is plain old repetition. You get familiar with the words when you start rehearsing and then you go over them in the evening, covering your part and stumbling through, asking whoever will help to listen to you and then repeating them to yourself incessantly as you go about your day. Driving is a great time to do lines. Lines tend to make themselves known when you are sleeping as well (preferably not while at the wheel), swimming around your subconscious in a disturbing fashion. Suddenly, everything that you hear reminds you of your play and your friends and family become almost as crazy as you, while you chant bits and pieces from forthcoming attractions in a frenzy.

And then there is the learning of everyone else's lines as well. Not their entire part, more the beginning and the ends, well, you want to leave yourself some surprises when they chat away while you listen night after night for the next several months. But you'll need to know the starts and stops because basically, that's where you come in (you cannot, unfortunately, say all your lines in one go). Your colleagues don't always make it easy for you. They may take a lot longer than you to learn their own lines, (they may never quite know them) leaving you to figure out if they finished speaking or have a little bit more to say or if they're ever going to mention that bit about the wardrobe that you're supposed to ask them about next. But if there's a big pause in the middle of the scene while you wonder whose turn it is to go next, it's usually yours.

I wish it weren't so prosaic. I wish there were some cunning trick, a shortcut that the Magic Circle of Equity members revealed to the novice before their first night, or even after just for kicks. I don't think most audiences watch a play in the hope that some spectacular mishap will occur, although I have been told often enough that 'audiences love that sort of thing' when I have been responsible for some spectacular disaster. Actually, audiences rarely notice when things do go a bit wrong. Not horribly wrong like when you might be left alone on stage while your fellow actor screams obscenities into the wings before deciding to return. For instance. That, they do tend to notice. But minor mishaps, like skipping ahead an act before realising and then running through the missing pages in your head while carrying on with the play. Mostly, they don't notice that.

This is why the 'actor's nightmare' is not just a cliché. We really do wake up screaming about having to go on without knowing the lines. The feeling is so completely terrible, so sweat soakingly, heart-poundingly panic inducing, that even though there is absolutely no obvious way to do it, every time we start a job we eject large quantities of essential data, (how to file tax returns/recognise family members/tie shoelaces) and shove the whole play into our heads. It's not life saving neurosurgery, or going down a mine, but it is quite tricky. And yet, we still get ever so slightly, very respectfully, affronted when that is the only thing asked of us after a show. 


  1. (Whispers) Psst! Sophie! Are you sure it's safe to come out and blog?

  2. It is a minor complaint amongst actors, a tiny grain of sand in the oyster of love for the audience, that the aspect of a performance that draws the most comment is often the feat of memory involved in line learning. 'Really?' thinks the actor, 'that was what you guys were focused on when I was out there getting my heart/arm/back broken? But that is just a result of physical repetition, a small tool in my technical armory. I feel so unappreciated and misunderstood'.

    That is funny. I suppose in the context of your article, the question is rather fluff, silly. But what would be worse, to ask the actor if he or she were really crying up there on stage; or, worse yet, confuse the actor for a character on the streets? Wouldn't that constitute as a psychosis of sorts?

    But yes, the memorization of lines is often exactly what the audience reflects on - especially if a lengthy speech is delivered with seamless continuity and conviction that there could have been no other way it could be delivered and by no better actor than the one who made the lines his/hers. Case in point, Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Charlie Wilson's War" - Hoffman gave a supreme delivery in every scene, I remember very little else of the movie but his presence.

  3. Lol LW, think the coast is clear.
    Anon 00:17, love PSH and loved Charlie Wilson's War actually.

  4. You’re up early on a Sunday, Sophie!
    I am sitting in bed, talking to my girlfriend, drinking tea from a favourite mug while sunshine streams through the window and the cat paces the bedroom floor hopeful of a second breakfast.
    Having read your latest blog that you posted late last night, my own ghosts of performances past came to haunt me and disturb my sleep.
    Many years ago, I was lucky enough (I choose the work ‘lucky’ rather than ‘talented’ on purpose) to be asked to play the lead in a production at the Edinburgh Fringe. In that gung-ho spirit that I still had in my youth, I accepted.
    It was one of the most painful episodes of my life. Learning my lines was not a real problem; initially I took them to work and bullied a colleague into helping me every lunchtime. I ummed and erred my way though my part while he read the rest. This went swimmingly, I thought, until I’d almost cracked it. One particular lunchtime, we got to the part in the play where a character asks my character: Do you love me? My colleague delivered the line while I swirled around in an office chair with my eyes closed. My character replied: Of course I love you. My colleague asked again: No, really, do you love me?
    Eh?! That’s not in the script. I stopped swirling and opened an eye. He had the script closed and was regarding me earnestly. Oh no! Thanks, gotta go!
    The thing with Fringe venues is that the audience is... well... incredibly close to the action. It’s not like being in a school play where you have the usual elevated stage and where, should you put in a bad performance then, by the time you’ve realised someone is lurching at you to punish you for wasting their evening, you have time to run off and hide in the girls’ toilets. At the Fringe, you almost have to step over the outstretched feet of people in the front row to get from one side of the ‘stage’ to the other.
    Another thing with performing on a stage is that you know the audience is out there an abstract way but you can’t see the whites of their eyes. Stage lighting means that they are, apart from the front couple of rows, in darkness. At the Fringe, they are so close that you can smell their breath. You can see them yawning and looking at their watches.
    If this sounds like a nightmare then it is. It was my nightmare from last night. I scarcely dare open my eyes this morning in case I was back in Edinburgh, having to face that again.
    On the other hand, I spent a lovely evening on Wednesday with an actor who is currently rehearsing for a play that is due to go on tour in the next couple of weeks. She has recently finished a long run in a TV series and is clearly very good at what she does and she enjoys it. For a while during the evening, I remember being envious that she has the life I want.
    At school and through university I fancied myself as an actor, but the Fringe severely dented my enthusiasm. It was petrifying. So my question to actors is not: how do you learn your lines, it’s more likely to be: why? lol!

  5. Hmmm, interesting, LW. Why learn their lines? I reckon because it's part of their craft? But then, there was a time in that gorgeous silent Era of movies where there was no sound. What did actors do? Learn the entire script? Obviously so they would know when to cue in, fade out and whatnot.

    Oh well, all of it is fascinating to me. "Anyone can be a critic. But not everyone can be an actor/actress," and for that you have my utmost respect. Kudos to all those who not only manage to stay in showbiz, but those who survive it long enough to enjoy it for the sake of enjoying what they do.

    Now, here comes the (bratty) inner critic: What we need are better Lesbian Movies. Most of them absolutely suck; they're juvenile, unrealistic, idealistic, hormonal, wretched acting, script. Exceptions being: A Village Affair, Aimee and Jaguar, Fire (I think, can't remember the title of the Indie Bollywood movie). I apologize to those I might offend, and I've not seen many Gay/Lesbian films but I've seen enough to say, I'm rather disappointed with the dismal output, beginning with Desert Hearts. Eww. What we need are great love stories, doesn't matter what gender mix.

  6. Olá Sophie! Gostei muito de seu post sobre memorizar linhas. Mais uma vez aprendi algo novo. Eu gostaria muito de um dia poder assitir um ensaio de teatro ou a gravação de uma cena. Muito legal! Obrigada. Um abraço.

    Hello Sophie! I enjoyed your post about memorizing lines. Once again I learned something new. I'd love one day to watch a rehearsal theater or recording a scene. Very cool! Thank you. A hug.

  7. Strange happenings at blogspot this week. Hope everyone got to write the things they wanted. If I've sent back messages that should have been posted, let me know.
    Happy to hear from you Mariangela, hope all is well.
    As for the quality of lesbian films, well I guess it is no better or worse than film in general but because it is such a (very) small pond, the failures and successes really stand out. But more and even better scripts would be wonderful. of course.

  8. Anonymous, what about the excellent Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister which was shown on the BBC a couple of weeks ago and which is now available on DVD? Although it seems Miss(ter) Lister was a bit of a monster, the BBC still did such an excellent job of creating a beautiful story. And Maxine Peak and Susan Lynch were outstanding.
    Don't forget, too, Portrait of a Marriage which is - finally - available on Region 2 DVD.

    Then there's my script which I am plugging away at. But, as I am, by definition, lazy, it will probably never get finished...

  9. No, I haven't written what I've wanted since you've ostracized me. So I want to slip into some pink satin sheets with you as a disco ball glitters and turns above our sex soaked bed. Big deal. So I like to watch seventv7it's Bela Donna trailer upload on YT, pause it at :43,:44, or :45 seconds, slip my hand in my underwear and pleasure myself. Big deal. So I imagine various scenarios of the two of us meeting and ending up in bed where I make you quiver with maddening pleasure. Big deal.

    Okay, I think I've gotten most of this off my chest now. Thank you.

  10. So, I guess I have some choices now. I can stop blogging; plenty of folks think I shouldn't do it anyway. Blogging has a bad rep within the industry.
    I can stop moderating comments, that way I am not colluding. Or I can stop comments altogether, a writer I admire has an excellent blog but accepts no comments.
    I don't care for censorship.
    My original idea in writing the blog was to offer some insights into the day-to-day work of an actor, the highlights and lowlights and in particular my own foolishness, which is extensive.
    Hey ho.

  11. Hi Sophie,

    I’ve never commented but have enjoyed every single one of your blog posts. I know I’m not alone in saying your insight into the world of acting, the good, bad & ugly, would be sorely missed. I’ve long held a fascination with the world you inhabit but my days on stage were beyond short as I made my debut at age 3 & a half and proceeded to wet myself (literally) with nerves. I never quite got the nerve back to try again (aside from one or two background scenes in a toga aged 11 chanting one line regarding the Ides of March) So for me your posts have been a revelation. We so often believe the hype and see the acting profession as all glamour but the clue is in the name, it’s a profession, for every high point there will be a low and I appreciate that you’ve shared them all with us. I hope that it continues but if it does not I wish you continued success in everything you do.

    Thank you.


  12. Thanks Leah, and others who have commented.

    Right, I'm going to stop anonymous comments and let's see how that goes.


  13. I do hope you continue blogging, Sophie.

  14. Dear Sophie, I agree with Leah and Dan; I hope you will continue with your blog posts, keep on delighting us with your insights into the Acting World! They are fascinating! If you want to, stop the comments, but please do not stop blogging!!

  15. Thanks to Dan and Niki, it means a lot. Hope you're all getting to enjoy this beautiful sunshine, if you're in Britain. And for those further afield, I hope the sun is shining for you too.

  16. Just got back from my hols (enjoyed the beautiful British sunshine). I have spent all day sorting my washing, tending my garden and pottering round Waitrose to re-fill my fridge with nice things for the weekend. Having then watched Wimbledon highlights and tuned into Glasto highlights, I checked my emails (usual un-repeatable jokes and LinkedIn requests). That done, I decided to hop into your website to have a quick look at Sophie So Far: oo dear. Please don't stop blogging, Sophie. Your insights into the world of acting make my job sound quite sane and almost viable as a career option. lol!
    Your generosity of spirit and the amount of time and effort you put into your blogs are genuinely appreciated. I don’t think anyone would begrudge you your right to withhold any comments which are distasteful or which leave you vulnerable.

  17. Memorization is BORING. When I was younger I participated in speech meets, school plays, etc. Line/speech learning always happened at the last minute. I never had any bad experiences but I think I just got lucky. You're right about an audience not noticing "minor" screw-ups. I never do.

  18. Hi Sophie
    I've just stumbled across your blog and they've been a great read! Despite the fact that I don't know the first thing about acting (my one and only role being as Cosette in Les Mis during which I was left alone on the stage for half a minute with nothing to say-much to the entertainment of the audience- while my supposed Father Val Jean tied his shoelace in the wings...needless to say I didn't take to the stage again) it's nice to gain an insight into how the job works! Its easy to overlook how much work must go into getting to grips with a role, I must bear this in mind next time I watch a film/play etc
    I sincerely hope that you post again at some point, you write brilliantly!
    Charlotte x