Line Please! Helpful Hints to Avoid Being at a Loss for Words

In our last post, A Study in Studying, we mentioned actors having “what some would consider an unfair advantage” when it comes to studying, referring to techniques used by performers to learn their lines for stage and screen. In this post, we’ll explore more deeply those techniques as they apply to acting, with tips to help young performers keep the dialogue flowing smoothly.

Common thinking would have many believe acting is easy, but the truth is committing lines to memory can be a challenge even for seasoned actors. And for child actors (particularly new readers), it can seem insurmountable at times. Instead of concentrating on the emotion of the moment, youngsters find themselves stumbling over words. Denise Simon of encourages them to “memorize the lines . . . this can take the task of reading away and they can concentrate on being truthful.” And for young performers, simplicity is key.

Memorization most readily comes through employing two of the three “Rs” of education—that is, reading and writing. The simple act of writing out lines into a notebook is not only an effective studying technique; it also helps actors commit dialogue to memory. But be warned: if your child has a leading role, this strategy may not be realistic. Reading and re-reading the script, particularly out loud, is another good memorization technique that’s almost like learning a favorite song; over time, the words become second nature.

Repetition aside, there are scientific factors at work behind the scenes (so to speak). According to the Association for Psychological Science, “the secret of actors' memories is, well, acting. An actor acquires lines readily by focusing not on the words of the script, but on those words' meanings — the moment-to-moment motivations of the character saying them — as well as on the physical and emotional dimensions of their performance.” So while learning by rote is a tried and true method, children should be encouraged to live in the moment as well when it comes to rehearsing and performing.

And when the words don’t come easy? Some suggest napping and then taking a walk after studying lines. From a piece in the Chicago Tribune, Gwendolyn Whiteside (of Chicago’s American Blues Theater) found science to support these counter-intuitive techniques: After a nap, Whiteside might walk around the block without the script to see how much dialogue she can remember. “I have no idea why this works, but they said if you actually walk instead of just sitting there, and you have your muscles moving while you're attempting to memorize, somehow it speeds the brain up."