How to Learn Your Lines Without Memorizing

Originally in Backstage

How to Learn Your Lines Without Memorizing

Have you ever wondered why young actors often sound like theyre speaking lines instead of expressing their own thoughts and feelings?

One reason, of course, is inexperience. But another lies within the most basic of actor tasks: learning lines. How actors memorize lines can negatively impact the quality of their performance.

In school we memorize dates, facts, and equations by rote. The result is we retain the information without understanding the subject matter and we forget what we learned soon after the test is over. Rote memorization is a perilous strategy for a young actor learning their lines because, unlike facts, lines arent static. Lines in plays and scripts are living expressions of a characters thoughts as they respond to their circumstances and try to convey their ideas in a way that makes sense to them. People dont speak in mindless streams. One line connects to the next in a uniquely logical sequence that the actor must provide.

These connections between the lines, or thought bridges,are what we think before we speak. Ignore them and you ignore why we say what we say. Actors learning lines or having difficulty finding the character theyre playing should try living in the bridges. What mental steps do you take to get from one line to the next? What happens between the lines is where the life is. The journey is a more interesting story than the destination.

How to Learn Your Lines Without Memorizing Philip Hernandez


When youre not speaking, listen. Receive the full force of each event. Ask yourself how it makes you feel? What does it make you want to do? Only then are you ready to deliver your next line. Action is born between the lines! An actors craft is 30 percent what you say and 70 percent what you dont say. Seventy percent happens in your listening and in the spaces between your lines.

It may seem obvious, but you cant express a thought you havent had. Thoughts occur before the line. The line expresses the thought. An actor in a high school play sounds like hes speaking someone elses words because he is literally speaking thoughtlessly, reciting one line to the next, just like he memorized them, while trying to act naturalas he says them. To retain and understand text in a meaningful way calls for a different approach.

Drilling lines into your head over and over until they sink inis slow and tedious. It often results in an unnatural delivery and an inability to adjust your memorized patterns in response to what happens in performance.

Using mnemonics, songs, and rhymes works better than drilling for getting your lines to stick, but theyre still reinforcing learning without understanding. What use is knowing your lines if youre hummingYankee Doodlein your head because thats how you learned them?


The next time you have to learn text, determine what you need in the scene, whats preventing you from getting it, and whats at stake if you dont get it. Then, instead of memorizing the words, spend time considering how you get from one thought to the next. Allow yourself to make connections and associations, no matter how random, and build bridges that make sense to you. Do you search for just the right word? Do you think, This guys an idiot, before you say, It was a pleasure meeting you? We dont just say lines. We choose words that express how we think and feel. Each line is part of a larger web of connections that move you toward your goal.


Rote memorization is great for remembering passwords, PIN numbers, and your moms birthday. But memorizing text that way wont help you discover how your character processes and responds to events as they pursue what they desperately need. Why not begin your process with that? Your lines will come with less effort if you understand why you say them, and your performance will be better for it.


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All my best, 



Philip Hernandez is a respected acting teacher and singing coach in NYC. He is also the only actor in Broadway history to play both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in Les Miserables. He created principal roles in Broadway’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman and Paul Simon’s The Capeman. You may also know him from his many television appearances: The Blacklist, Gotham, Blue Bloods, The Path, Bull, Nurse Jackie, Elementary, Person of Interest, Law and Order, Hostages and Damages to name a few. For information about acting lessons CLICK HERE or singing lessons CLICK HERE

Follow him on twitter @philip24601, on Instagram @philip24601 and on Facebook at @philip24601.

5 thoughts on “How to Learn Your Lines Without Memorizing

  • Robert J Evans

    I started doing background work 8 years ago at age 78, and as a consequence have fallen into some small acting jobs as well, but have tried to avoid anything with more than a few lines of dialog. as I do have difficulty memorizing them. I don’t know if partly may advanced age (now almost 87 🙂 or that the writer’s words are often not the way I would express them. But I find this article very helpful and will focus on that.

  • Gary Horsfield

    Thanks for the great advice Philip ive been doing TV and Film extra for a year now and wish to move on to better things like walk ons and dialogue so this is all great advice for an early learner like me can you give me more advice on how to get established as a good artist for doing auditions etc Thank You

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