Stop telling yourself you don't know them
Over the past year I have been mulling over the roadblocks that prevent actors from having an easier time learning lines. What got me thinking about this was realizing that we can often remember entire song lyrics from ages ago without ever having set out to memorize them. So why does learning lines present such a challenge to many actors? I have come to the conclusion that the greatest roadblock comes from the tendency to tell ourselves we don’t know the lines. We do this both consciously and subconsciously, at the beginning of the learning task, throughout the learning process, and before we step out on stage or in front of the camera.
Our instructors at the Stella Adler Studio in New York used to tell us that if we’ve done the work, then we need to trust that the lines will be there when we need them. For most of us, that would be like falling backwards and hoping the universe will catch us. Um, I don’t think so. I’d rather some more certainty than that. So most of us will study, fret, use all kinds of gimmicks, apps and techniques to keep cramming the lines into our heads, bodies and wherever else we think they might fit.
And then it hit me. The thing that is common to all of these activities is that we believe we don’t know the lines. When a script lands on our desk, our first thought is often along the lines of “Oh, crap. I don’t know this stuff, and I need to.” Not knowing the material becomes the dominant narrative of how we approach the task. Every time we make a mistake, we chide ourselves with “Crap, I don’t know this!” This makes us more nervous, more self-doubting and more likely to make mistakes.
I decided to experiment with doing the opposite. Rather than decide I didn’t know the material, I decided to assume that the material was going in just fine, was finding a home inside me, and would be there when I needed it. When a complicated new script arrived, I audio recorded it as I usually do, and just lived with the material for a while. I had it playing in the background as I was falling asleep, as I surfed Facebook, as I went about doing other things. The script that had seemed so complicated eventually became familiar, and even predictable.
What I didn’t do was do a ton of detailed line learning, cursing every time I got something wrong or telling myself I didn’t know the material. I chose to believe I knew it. Though it was terrifying, I went to the first rehearsal and left my script in my bag, going totally crutch-free. To my surprise and amazement, the lines actually were there! I mean to a 75% or 80% level, without having caused myself undue stress and self-doubt in the learning process. I found it a lot easier from that point onward to focus my attention on the softer parts, tightening up the ones that needed tightening.
So my experiment was a success, and will form the basis for how I approach learning lines in the future. If you are looking for some different ideas around learning your lines here are some ideas to experiment with:
Robert David Duncan, award-winning director, actor, writer and producer with a passionate interest in art, storytelling and the whole amazing journey called life. Founder of Fat Punk Productions Ltd. and Festival Director of the Miniature Film Festival.