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How to Learn Your Lines

February 6, 2008

Takes and Double Takes
Stephen Stearns’ thoughts about theatre, youth and otherwise

This week’s Topic:

How to Learn Your Lines

Here are twelve techniques for learning lines. They apply to learning ancient and modern plays and poetry as well. Some techniques work better for Shakespeare, the ones that explain how focusing on imagery, ie "word pictures", helps the actor memorize texts that have lots of imagery. Other techniques, like walking around while learning the lines, or using psychological gestures, are helpful to use when memorizing any text at all, be it play or poem.

I have broken this technique down into twelve parts.

Part One: “Meaning or Sense” your text…  that is, study your text very carefully, word by word, to get the specific meaning of each and every word and the sense which, together, they generate.  For example, the word “presently” in modern English means “soon” or “by and by”.  But in Elizabethan English it means “right now, immediately, in the present moment”.  There is an urgency indicated when  Shakespeare’s characters use the word “presently” that is not indicated when a modern character speaks the same word.  Know the meaning of the words you speak, exactly; and if a word has several meanings all at once, then learn them all.

Part Two:  “Your Own Words It”…  that is translate the text into your own words; speak the characters’ ideas using your own way of speaking.  If you can speak those ideas accurately in modern language, then you really do know what you are saying and why you are saying it.

Part Three: “Slalom Gate it”…  By this I mean, consider each and every line or phrase a ski slalom gate.  You are not allowed to proceed to the next line or “gate” until you have mastered the previous one.

Part Four:  “Chunk it”…  Once you have really studied a line, have bitten it off, chewed it over and over, sucked all the life out of it, digested it and it is in your blood stream, it can then be called a fully memorized “Line” of text.  Once you have fully digested two lines of text, you combine, think and speak them together…  those two lines together represent a “chunk” (like a five note passage played by the piano player’s left hand…which she then combines with the five notes played by the right hand…and those two lines of notes played by each hand join to form a musical chunk).  Learn the next two lines and then join that new “chunk” to the first “chunk” to form a larger four- line “chunk”.  Keep building larger “chunks” but never go on to new “chunks” until you have fully mastered the earlier ones.

Part Five:  “Beat It Out”…  Shakespeare’s lines of verse have a distinct rhythm: iambic pentameter, or ten beats to a line: lub dub, lub dub, lub dub, lub dub, lub dub, like the heart beat.  Some lines have eleven beats or even up to thirteen and some are uneven, syncopated; they stutter step because the thought spoken by the character is hard for them to express or they are in an emotional turmoil.  Shakespeare writes feelings right into the text.  The most important words, meaning- wise, in a Shakespearean line, are the second words (or syllables) of any given iamb {an iamb is a metrical foot that, in English verse, has one unaccented syllable followed by one accented one.}  Verbs typically fall on a second, accented syllable.  Nouns usually do the same; and the last word of a line is almost always accented, and a most important word.  Make sure to beat out each line and take special care to give due emphasis to the last word of every line…  that last word will typically vault or launch you into the next line of text.

Part Six: “Premise It”…  which means to find out what the premise of the line/passage/scene is.  Premise means, “what is really going on here; what is the truth of the line in the context of the truth of the arc of the scene and the arc of the play.  Do not proceed until you know what the premise of the line/scene is.

Part Seven:  “Psych Gesture it”… I borrowed this idea from Michael Chekhov who suggests that each thought a character speaks can be translated into a dynamic, physical gesture, e.g: “get out!” can be translated into a sweeping gesture with the arm and hand.  “I don’t know what to do” could be translated physically into a pounding of your head with your clenched fists.  The psychological gesture will help you remember and feel and act the line; then, for performance of the scene, you can choose to use the physiological gesture outright on stage or to pull the feeling of it deep inside you where you will feel it but not act it for the audience to see.

Part Eight: “Image it”…  Shakespeare’s Rose and Globe theatres were open air and made little use of realistic “place” scenery.  Lighting did not create atmosphere the way our indoor stage lighting does today.  Instead, Shakespeare used word images to paint the scene for his audience.  For example, Horatio, in Hamlet, encourages the audience, along with his compatriots, Marcellus and Bernardo, to see the sunrise by saying, “ But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill.”  Never just say the words that describe things, be they clouds or shrouds, as in Capulet’s tomb in Romeo and Juliet:  NO, you must fully and very specifically picture in your head the image you are describing!!  That is essential to you the character, to your partner actors, and to the audience that is imagining with you.

Part Nine: “Rap it”…  Get up on your feet and dance the beats in the lines as if you were a rap star:  “Now en-ter-tain con-jec-ture of a time, when cree-ping murmur and the pour-ing dark, …FILLS the wide vessel of the u-ni-verse!”  {Henry V}

Part Ten:  “Rebound it:”… Say certain words and phrases over and over and over in different ways with different vocal qualities and various emotions, asking yourself over and over as you do this, “what, what, what does this word/this phrase really, really, really mean?  What is the most specific mental picture I can find to peg to these words?  For example, King Lear, in Act III, scene iv, lines 28-31, says, “Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you From seasons such as these?”
I would suggest that you rebound, say over and over, words like “houseless heads” and “loop’d and window’d raggedness” until you can understand totally what Lear is imagining and feeling:  he is imagining and describing his poor subjects, people without houses (homeless people) out in this terrible hurricane of a storm, people so utterly poor that their clothes have far more windows in them than cloth; they are so full of holes as to be little more than open loops or swags of threads.  The more you say over and over the word-image, the more you will fully imagine it, and that will lead onward towards your fully seeing in your mind’s eye what Lear is seeing, and feeling what Lear is feeling.  If you say Lear’s words without a full imagining and full feeling, you will never take your audience along with you on your journey through the drama.

Part Eleven: “Rhyme, Alliterate it”…   Make note of all the words that rhyme and all the sounds that are repeated by Shakespeare.  Those rhymes and repeated sounds help to tie the text together, to tie the ideas expressed together; they also give the character ammunition in getting her or his thoughts and passions across to the other characters and to the audience.  Notice Lear’s repeated use of words beginning with the letter P in this line: “Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm.”  We have Poor, pelting and pitiless.  Each of these words helps Lear express his anger, frustration and sorrow about all that he has done and left undone when it comes to his subjects.  And notice the repeated vowel sounds that slide so wonderfully together in the words “wheresoe’er you are”.  If we remove the consonants it will sound like this, “ere-o-ere-ooo-ah-ee”.  Sounds pretty much like a child crying doesn’t it.  If you look carefully at every line of Shakespeare, you will make wonderful discoveries of his use of consonant and vowel sounds to express the emotions of both human suffering and joy.

Part Twelve:  “Find repetitions and connect in your mind the opposites; see how they balance”...those repetitions and balances help to tie your thoughts together and drive your thinking onwards toward what you want”…  Shakespeare gives meaning by repeating words, for example, Macbeth’s: “If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.” He also pulls meaning together by balancing one word or idea against another, just like a sailor pulling two ends of a rope together to tie a knot.  He is forever contrasting the two sides of a coin, or sides of an argument:  Hamlet, “To be or NOT to be”, and he describes his uncle Claudius by saying that he is: “Little MORE than kin and LESS than kind”; notice also Romeo’s use of contrast and balancing (and word pictures/images) to describe Juliet: “Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,”  This is exactly like our saying, “if A then  B”…Once you know the A thought, it will, by balance or contrast, give you the B thought.

Part Thirteen:  “Mean it”…  Rebound your smallest chunk lines over and over until you can really commit to them, until you can really mean them, utterly believe in them.

Part Fourteen:  “Dialect them”…  for fun, to keep yourself interested, and to open up your imagination, try saying your lines in different dialects and as different characters: as Bullwinkle, as Popeye, as Yogi Bear, as a Baptist preacher, as a gun slinger, as Peter Lorre, as a cockney or a Chicago gangster, or a hillbilly, etc.  This will also build your bank account of personalities you can play and voices you can do for TV and radio voice-overs.

Part Fifteen:  “Walk your lines”…  At the beginning I find that I must sit at my desk and do careful text analysis sitting down, looking up words and so forth.  But once I know what the words mean, I begin to walk around as I say the lines; I especially walk with my script up in the woods near my home;  I walk and walk and walk and I rebound and rebound and rebound the words and lines until I get the deepest meaning and feeling I can out of each and every one of them.  The walking helps me keep my energy up, it drives me onward and allows my sessions to go for hours without getting bored or needing snacks.  If I sit, I get in a rut very quickly, and worse, I fall asleep.  Then, to avoid deadly sleep, I begin to snack on whatever I can find and my energy and focus get very dissipated.  My line learning is incomplete, languid and flat.  My acting really suffers!  So walk your lines; carry your book with you until you no longer need it.

Part Sixteen:  “Tape the lines which are cues for your lines”…  I make a tape of all the lines that feed into my lines.  I use a small Sony Pro Walkman.  I have a second small Sony-Pro recorder that I use to tape my current, “right now” spoken words.  Then I rewind and go over what I just taped and compare it to the text.  That way I discover my mistakes right away and correct them.  If I don’t do that, I will rehearse over and over the wrong words until they become habit; that spells disaster because once they are drilled into my nervous system, they are very hard to root out and correct.

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