About Learning Lines?
Michael Murray first started acting at the age of eighteen and he is now in his sixties. He has been a professional actor and a drama teacher and has written plays and directed them. For nearly fifty years he has been studying roles and learning lines. He has also had the privilege of watching others doing the same thing.
In his book Learning Lines? A Practical Guide for Drama Students and Aspiring Actors he shares some of the techniques that have allowed him to step out on stage or set without fear of forgetting his character's words.
There are some well-meaning people - usually not actors - who will promise you painless shortcuts to knowing your lines. Be intensely suspicious of such people. Take it from me: hard wiring the lines authentically into your body and soul requires graft and cannot be done easily. It requires huge amounts of work and effort. If you are not prepared to give an absolute commitment to attaining command and mastery of your role, no matter how large or small it is, you might as well give up now. Without intense application you will never become an accomplished performer.
In April 1966 I had been a student of acting at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for barely a week. We were rehearsing scenes from J. B. Priestley's Music at Night for the first of our student "Tests": these were hoops that we had to successfully leap through every six weeks in order to maintain our place at the Academy. The scenes were being directed by the imperiously condescending, awesomely knowledgeable (and to me perfectly terrifying) drama tutor, Mary Duff.
During the course of the rehearsal Miss Duff suddenly began to reflect aloud on the learning of lines. She explained that she often sat on the tube watching people who had a play text in their hand whom she presumed to be either drama students or amateur actors. She described how they would look at the book, and then close their eyes as they attempted to commit their lines to memory. "Completely wrong," she said, "you do not learn lines: you study a part."
You do not learn lines: you study a part
If you are an actor, knowing your lines thoroughly is essential. That might seem like a statement of the obvious but when I talk of knowing the lines I mean knowing them inside out and backwards and having an absolute understanding of why your character says them. When studying a script inexperienced actors will concentrate only on their own lines but experienced actors will study everyone's dialogue as well as the dramatic elements that the writer has employed in the creation of the text. Understanding these elements enables professional actors to enhance the playing of their own roles. Learning lines unthinkingly by rote without understanding their context is never enough. You must understand and know the lines so well that you are able to recall them automatically and without hesitation even when in front of an audience of a thousand people; in a film or television studio full of equipment and a million distractions; or on location surrounded by many curious and excited members of the public. To do this you need to have absorbed the lines deeply into your being: into every nerve and sinew; into every cell. "Get those lines into your gut," as a director once told me. And unless you have got the lines into your gut you will never be in a position to forget about them and allow inspiration, that shy and elusive but transforming element to enter into your performance. For inspiration only appears when your preparation is based on a sound technique; when your mind and feelings are so relaxed you can throw yourself unselfconsciously into your performance and act completely in the moment: in other words, not act but be! And how can you do that if you are not absolutely certain of what you are going to say next?
Embed your lines securely in your memory
In Learning Lines? A Practical Guide for Drama Students and Aspiring Actors I introduce you to the dramatic elements that writers use to structure a script and move an audience; show you how to read a script for various purposes such as creating a character and analysing your character's scenes; explain to you how to divide a role into its units and objectives; reveal some of the psychological elements involved in the memorisation process and consider their implications for learning lines; demonstrate for you how to make a start on learning a role. Finally, I provide you with techniques, exercises and tips that will embed your lines securely in your memory.
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