I know this post is a little long, but it purports to teach you an entire technique for Memorizing Dialogue for Working On-Camera. Before I go over this technique, I encourage you to click on this link and read my two previous posts, if you haven't yet done so. You should never begin to memorize dialogue until you have properly Broken Down the Script! Once you have done this, you are ready to learn your dialogue quickly and easily. And, with this technique, faster and easier than you're most likely used to.
There are probably as many techniques for learning dialogue, as there are unemployed actors in L.A...
Everyone seems to have their own formula. First of all, I’d like to discuss the drawbacks to some of the more popular ones I’ve heard.
HOW NOT TO LEARN LINES:
By Rote. I mentioned, in my last post, the example of the actress learning her lines by rote, in a hurry. When you memorize lines by repeating them over and over again, you learn the line readings along with them. This method also makes it difficult to play off the other actor. You tend to say the lines the same way no matter how the other actor speaks to you. Your performance will be somewhat mechanical. The exception to this is the Meisner trained actor. The Mesiner technique uses rote learning in a very different and specific way - and it only works when you have been completely trained in the technique.
Using a tape recorder – Version A. Many actors like to say their own lines into a tape recorder and then listen to them while they drive or exercise or whatever. Once again, this leads to a rather mechanical performance and doesn’t allow for variations in the line readings. You will have a hard time adapting to changes such as the other actors’ choices or your increased understanding of your characters’ motivation.
Using a tape recorder – Version B. The other way you can use a tape recorder is to record the other character's lines (your “cue lines”) and leave space for you to say your lines. While this method allows you to vary the way you say your lines, to some extent, it still demands that you say them at a forced tempo (before the recorded lines play back). You also get accustomed to hearing your cues spoken a certain way and will be easily thrown when the other actor says them differently than you recorded them.
Saying your lines into a mirror. Don’t laugh. People are actually still teaching actors to do this(!!!) I have worked with several actors (one was a series regular!) that use this method to learn their lines. They believe they can critique their performance while they learn their lines. While this does allow for spontaneity, it inhibits character growth. When you look at yourself and say your lines you don't see the character you are portraying or the character you are talking to - you see yourself. Instead of reacting as the character, you are “outside your head”, watching and critiquing your performance. This makes you more self-conscious and makes it much harder to react as a character when the camera is rolling.
All three of these methods also discourage one of the most important and overlooked principles of acting... LISTENING.
HOW TO LEARN LINES
So, how do I recommend you learn your lines? You're probably familiar with the concept of "cue lines". The last words the other character says before you say your lines.
Well, I don't use them.
In acting schools and college drama departments across the country, future actors are still being taught to "learn their cues" (the last few words of the other person's lines, before it's your turn to speak) by well-meaning but incompetent acting teachers (who probably learned it from their well-meaning but incompetent acting teachers). Sorry, but not only does this mean you have to learn almost twice as much dialogue, but it also creates an actor that "turns off" while the other actor is speaking and waits until it's their turn to speak. Instead, try this:
Highlight the triggers. When most actors begin to learn their lines, they begin by highlighting their lines. I suggest that you use one color on your lines, say yellow and then use another color, say blue, to highlight the emotional triggers in the other persons’ lines. (Or you can simply underline the triggers with a pen or pencil). Now, I’m not talking about the “cue” lines, I’m talking about the one to three words that are actually eliciting a response from you. Causing you to say your lines. For instance, take a look at the following dialogue:
Brian: I’m on my way to an important meeting downtown, with Frankie. He has an idea he thinks I’ll like.
Liz: Haven’t you heard? Frankie was in a car accident and broke his leg. He isn’t going to be meeting with anyone for a while.
Brian: Frankie broke his leg?!
Let’s say you are Liz and you need to learn her dialogue. As I said, actors are often taught to learn the cue line; in this case, her cue is Brian's line, “He has an idea he thinks I'll like.” so they'll know when to say their line. The problem is that this is not the line that triggers Liz’s dialogue. Nothing about that line elicits this response. But, by highlighting “meeting…with Frankie” you’ll know what to say. Now, Brian’s next line “Frankie broke his leg?!” is triggered by what words in Liz’s line? Obviously it’s, “broke his leg”. Liz's ‘cue’ words “…meeting with anyone for a while”, don’t have anything to do with Brian’s next line “Frankie broke his leg?!” You getting the hang of it?
Now I know this sounds "too easy" and, well... it is. You must get the triggers right, but I promise you, if you go through and highlight the triggers like I've explained and then run through the dialogue two or three times, you'll have it down. Really. Although you won't think you do because you won't be able to recite all your lines from memory. BUT when you hear your trigger, you'll immediately know your line!
When I teach this method in class I give a couple of actors 10 minutes to memorize a three-page scene. When I tell them time's up and take their scripts, they always complain that they don't know their lines and need more time. But when I say "action" and they start talking, you see them listening intently to the other actor and their eyes light up whenever they hear the triggers from the other actor - just like your eyes light up when you want-to-respond to something you hear in real life! And they always get most of their lines letter perfect.
I find this method also helps prevent actors from “turning off” until it is their turn to speak. It helps you to be what I call an "Active-Listener" and this is very important. You are responding to the appropriate stimulus. This will create, in you, a desire to respond as soon as you hear the trigger, which is a real reaction. Don’t worry about cutting off the other actor – you won’t. He'll keep saying his line. But you'll want to interrupt when you hear your trigger and that looks great on camera! We’ll know that when you heard the trigger you wanted to respond. You're an Active-Listener.
AND you're helping to tell the story. Let's say that Brian doesn't like Frankie. When he hears that Frankie broke his leg, the slightest smile peeks out from behind Brian's eyes. This communicates information that isn't in the dialogue. In TV and film this reaction will get you what we crassly call “face time” – more time on camera – not because you’re pretty or you’re stealing focus – but for the only reason that a person actually gets face time -- because your reaction helps to tell the story.
Older actors seem to benefit enormously from this method. Obviously, as we get older, memorizing tends to get more difficult. Often times, actors that have a difficult time remembering lines are, ironically, trying to think of their upcoming lines in advance. This is more difficult and less realistic. We don’t think of what we are going to say in advance when we talk in real life. We simply respond to what the other person says. The “trigger” method of learning lines fosters this naturalness. It also makes learning dialogue faster than you ever thought possible. After all, you're being reminded of your line right before you say it.
Big caveat: This technique doesn't apply to monologues. I have a different technique for learning monologues and it's even faster than this technique for dialogue! But that's gonna have to be the subject of another post. OR you can spend a whopping $9.99 and get my book where I clearly explain how to make money as an actor, no matter where you live...