How To Memorize Lines: Tips and Techniques

actors memorizing lines for a play

It’s a truth universally acknowledged: if you want to be an actor, you’re going to have to learn how to memorize lines. Whether you’re in a community theater musical or a professional Shakespeare production, there’s always a script to learn. When you find the memorization techniques that work for you, it’s easy to get off book and into the role.

If you’re in a hurry — as in, you have one day to learn audition sides — scroll here for tips for memorizing lines faster, straight from some of Hollywood’s most famous actors.

Memorization Techniques for Actors: Find the Best Way to Memorize Lines

You did it! You got the role, and you have the script in hand. The off-book date is looming on the rehearsal schedule — it’s time to figure out the best way to memorize your lines. We’ve got you; try these script memorization techniques, and see which one works best for your brain.

script with actor's marks as a memorization technique

1. Get familiar with the script

As soon as you get the script, read it all the way through. Then, read it again. Here’s the key: don’t skip scenes you’re not in! This sounds obvious, but we all know those actors who only read their scenes. Reading the play creates the foundation for every other memorization technique. When you’re familiar with the plot, it’s easy to see how your character fits into the story. This makes it so much easier to memorize your lines; you’ll understand why you’re saying them. (See #8 below)

2. Recite and repeat

Memorizing lines is all about muscle memory — once you do something enough, it gets cemented into your mind and body. Do anything enough times, and it becomes unconscious — that’s why you can probably drive to your childhood home with your eyes shut. Your body remembers.

It’s the same way with lines — repeat them over and over again, and they’ll become embedded in your subconscious. The trick? Recite them out loud. It’ll speed up the muscle-memory process. Do this any time you have a few minutes: on the train, waiting in line, before you go to bed. 

3. Use the “credit card” technique

One of our Theater Love staffers had a voice teacher once who taught something she called the “credit card method”: you only work on the music and lyrics that fit into the width of a credit card. (Usually, that’s about one phrase.) You repeat that one tiny section over and over again until it’s perfect.

You can use the same trick as a memorization technique for lines. Start with one or two lines, and repeat them until they flow naturally out of your mouth. Then, add the next little chunk. Repeat the entire section until it comes out perfectly; don’t move on until you can get through it without any mistakes.

4. Write your lines by hand

Are you struggling with line memorization? Write them down. Your phone or laptop isn’t going to cut it — get a pen or a pencil and write every single line by hand on a sheet of paper. Yes, it takes time, but it’s an incredibly powerful technique.

This simple trick forces your brain to process the information in a different way. It creates a mind-body connection — your brain has to think about each word and transmit a signal to your hand. It’s neuroscience; researchers in Norway found that writing by hand activates areas of your brain associated with memory. In other words, the physical act of writing lines creates new neural pathways that make it easier to memorize them.

After you’ve written out a scene or the entire script, take this exercise a step further. Lay another sheet of paper on top, and move it slowly down the page to test your memory..

5. Practice lines while you work out

The next time you hop on the treadmill or exercise bike, bring your script. There’s something about the repetitive rhythm of your footsteps that helps cement the lines into your brain. Plus, it’s helpful to learn lines while you’re doing something else; it prepares you for blocking and dancing.

Are you learning lines for a musical or a Shakespeare play? This memorization technique is super useful for songs and sonnets — the consistent pounding of your feet helps you keep the beat. For lyrics, try singing them while you exercise; it’ll help with memorization and breath control.

6. Find someone to run lines with you

When you have about 75% of the script memorized, ask someone to read the other characters’ lines so you can practice. Don’t do it earlier, or you’ll spend most of the time asking for hints.

It doesn’t matter if the person can read with expression. In fact, it can actually be helpful to run lines with a non-actor. It forces you to listen carefully, adapt, and adjust your performance accordingly. That way, if your scene partner does something different on stage, you’ll be ready to flow with it.

7. Record the other lines

Can’t find anyone to read lines with you? Get out your phone, and open the voice memo app. Record yourself reading the other characters’ lines out loud; when you get to your lines, read them silently to yourself. Make sure to do it at your normal pace so the pauses aren’t too long or too short. Then, play the file, and fill in the gaps with your lines.

8. Find an emotional connection to the lines

Meaning is everything when it comes to memorization — that’s why it’s often harder to memorize short interjections than long monologues. If you’re struggling with a specific passage, it’s probably because you haven’t internalized it into your character. In other words, you’re not feeling the emotion of the line.

To make it easier to memorize lines, make them mean something. Figure out the character’s connection to what they’re saying. If it’s not in the script, make it up!

In The Winter’s Tale, Hermione has a long monologue about being taken to jail and put on trial immediately after giving birth. One of her lines is:

“…lastly, hurried
Here to this place, i’ the open air, before
I have got strength of limit.

In other words, she just had a baby — she feels like garbage. If you were playing Hermione and you needed to remember that line, it’s helpful to link it to the character’s physical sensation. How would it feel to be sitting in a freezing cold jail after the trauma of expelling a person from your body? Sit with it. Feel it in your bones. Then, put all of that feeling to the line; you’ll remember it forever.

Need more memorization tips? Check out these prompts:

  • When I say this line, I feel the heartache welling up inside my chest
  • Another character says something that makes me feel intense love; I can feel it filling  my body, and eventually, it overflows and takes the form of this line
  • My character has dealt with lots of abusive people in her life, and that anger and humiliation motivates this line 

9. Associate lines with physical movements

Have you ever gotten on stage for the first time, only discover that your lines went right out of your head? That’s because your body is trying to remember both words and physical movements. A trick to remember your lines is to associate them with specific physical movements.

  • The door bangs open, which startles me and inspires this line
  • On this line, I move stage right and turn to look at the other character
  • Right before this line, I look at a specific prop, and it triggers me to say the line 

Often, it’s helpful to connect a physical movement and an emotion. Your character feels something, which affects the way they move, and inspires the line.

How To Memorize Lines Faster: How Do Actors Memorize Their Lines?

Image courtesy of nican45 under CC BY-SA 2.0

Sometimes, you need to memorize lines fast. For actors, this often happens when an audition comes up at the last minute — suddenly, you have pages of sides to commit to memory,  and only a few hours to do it.

Sound familiar? Take a cue from TV actors — they are the masters of learning how to memorize lines quickly.

Allison Janney: First-letter memorization tip

Take a cue from The West Wing actress Allison Janney. In a 2019 interview, Janney explained how she memorized Aaron Sorkin’s famously dense dialogue quickly. She’d take a line and write down the first letters of each word, plus the punctuation. This serves as a simple visual cue that you can take anywhere.

Let’s use this technique on a line from The Importance of Being Earnest:

I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them.

To memorize the line quickly, you’d write:

I h p w a n s a m. I i s s o t.

Your brain automatically fills in the rest of the letters, so it’s easier to remember. Try it!

Jim Parsons: Flashcards

We love this lightning-fast method for remembering lines: make flashcards! When memorizing the script for The Big Bang Theory, Jim Parsons would write the cue line on one side of a card and his line on the other side. Genius.

Johnny Galecki: Memorize the sounds and rhythm

When you’re learning lines quickly, you don’t always have time to stop and suss out the deeper meaning — sometimes, you just need to get the words out of your mouth. Give the line a cadence; it’ll help reinforce it in your brain. It’s what actor Johnny Galecki did to memorize the scientific lingo for The Big Bang Theory.

Creed Bratton: Play the lines while you sleep

This technique is a little weird, but hey — if it works, it works. When Creed Bratton was learning lines for The Office, he recorded himself saying them. Then, he played them in the middle of the night, hoping that they would sink into his brain. 

Emily Mortimer: Find the patterns in the script

When you have to learn a big block of lines, it’s helpful to look for patterns. It can be anything: a series of letters, three words that start with “S”, or multiple sentences that begin with the same word. Emily Mortimer uses this trick to learn her lines on The Newsroom.

Bill Nighy: Line by line memorization

When asked how he memorizes lines, Bill Nighy uses a gradual approach: say one line 18-20 times. Then, add the next line, and repeat. Continue with this process until you’ve gotten through the entire scene.

FAQ: Memorizing Lines

How should I memorize Shakespeare lines?

Shakespeare plays seem intimidating, but they’re surprisingly simple to memorize. That’s because they’re essentially poetry — if you can find the rhythm of the line, it’s a breeze to remember.

Take this famous line:

If music be the food of love, play on

If we bold the syllables that fall on the beat, it looks like this:

If music be the food of love, play on

Need help finding the beats? PrescannedShakespeare has free, marked-up versions of everything Shakespeare wrote.

As you’re learning how to memorize Shakespeare, try these tips:

  • Find the rhythm of the verse (scansion)
  • Mark the emphasized syllables or words in your script
  • Tap out the beat as you memorize the lines
  • Figure out what every line means
  • Rephrase the lines into modern English; then, say the Shakespearean lines with the same inflection and meaning
  • Speak your lines out loud as you practice
  • Mark the punctuation – not all commas are created equally

How long do actors have to learn lines?

For plays and musicals, actors usually have 4-6 weeks to learn their lines. The director will specify an “off-book” date; at that point, actors are expected to be fully memorized. For productions with limited rehearsal periods, actors may be expected to show up with their lines fully memorized. This usually happens only in professional productions.

Is it Easy to Memorize Lines?

Some actors find it extremely easy to memorize lines; others struggle mightily. When you’re figuring out how to memorize a script, it’s easier if you A) start early and B) find memorization techniques that work best for you personally. 

Are you learning how to memorize a monologue for an audition? In some ways, this is easier than memorizing a script — after all, it’s much shorter. However, you don’t have the time to build a character, so it can be harder to work the lines into your body and emotions.

How Can I Memorize My Lines Naturally?

If you’re wondering how to remember lines naturally, try integrating them into your character work. As you develop a deep understanding of your character and their motivations, the lines should play a key role. Look for clues in the script, in the dialogue and the stage direction. Build a history, invent a backstory — all the things you’d normally do. When your character feels like a part of you, your lines will come naturally.

Take Anita in West Side Story. Her experiences as an immigrant in New York have instilled a deep distrust in outsiders. She’s seen horrible things. So, when Maria announces that she’s in love with Tony, Anita’s years of built-up anger and fear and hurt just pour out — and she sings “A Boy Like That.” If you’re playing Anita, and you are mentally and emotionally feeling what it’s like to be in her body with all of that history, it’s so much easier to memorize the lines.

Learning How to Memorize Lines

Whether you’re an amateur or professional actor, it pays to learn how to memorize lines. The faster you can get off book, the faster you’ll be able to do the deep character work that leads to a great performance. Plus, when you’re not buried in the script, you’ll be able to look at other actors’ faces and find that true human connection — and isn’t that the true joy of theater?

Top image courtesy of cottonbro at Pexels