Help students learn their lines

Yesterday, Pioneer Drama Service, (publisher of my plays A Family Reunion to Die For and Murderous Night at the Museum) featured an article I wrote in their newsletter. Subscribe to their newsletter for all sorts of great tips for working with young and amateur performers.  My article in this newsletter discusses ways to help student actors learn their lines.

The full text of the article is below:

Newsletter: Working with Student Actors – Help Students Learn their Lines

By Mike Steele

October 8, 2013

It’s the final week of rehearsals for the school play you’re directing.  You’re frazzled as you sit in the booth and organize lighting cues with the technical director, jot notes about last minute alterations you’d like your costumer to make, and frantically text message the set designer that the walls are a little too orange.  At least the cast is well rehearsed.  The scene onstage is running smoothly until…  SILENCE!  The students stand frozen, waiting for one young actor to speak, but he doesn’t seem to notice that he’s missed his line.

We’ve all been in this type of situation when working with student actors.  Memorizing dozens (if not hundreds) of lines and the order in which to say them can be challenging for any actor, but it seems like an especially daunting task for the young and novice.  I find myself repeating the same phrase year after year to my high school students:  “I can’t learn your lines for you.”

And it’s true.  As directors, we can’t learn the lines for our casts.  Are we resigned to simply sit back and watch our actors struggle through the line learning process, though?  Absolutely not.  We may not be able to learn the lines for these young thespians, but there are a few strategies we can employ to help make the transition off book as painless as possible for everyone involved.

  1. Record the read-through (not just the performance) and offer it to the cast.  Many actors find that they best memorize their lines by listening to the dialogue over and over.  Your more conscientious students might record themselves reading the script aloud, but others might not have the skills or know-how.  Why should each cast member have to go through the trouble of producing his own recording, anyway?  You can simplify the process by making an audio recording of the first read-through of the script.  Distribute CD or mp3 copies of the recording to the cast and encourage your students to listen to the recordings whenever they would normally listen to music:  as they get dressed, during car rides, while they’re working out, when they’re falling asleep, etc.  If you separate each scene as a different track on the recording, it will be easier for individual cast members to find the parts of the show that they need to memorize.
  2. Spread out the off book fun.  A full length script can contain 90 or more minutes of dialogue that a cast must collectively memorize.  Many directors require their actors to be off book for a whole act or even the entire play at once.  For an actor, it can seem like an impossible task to sit down and memorize such large chunks of text.  Consider adjusting the schedule so that you only ask the cast to memorize individual scenes or smaller portions of the script at one time.  While the final off book date might remain where it normally would be in the rehearsal process, these smaller and more manageable memorization challenges will be less overwhelming to your young actors.
  3. Extra credit might provide extra motivation.  Many actors find that they best memorize their lines by writing the dialogue over and over.  While this may seem tedious, it’s a tried and true technique practiced by many professionals.  This method may work for some and be a big bore for others, but encourage your students to give it a shot.  Offer extra credit to any actor who turns in a notebook with each of his lines handwritten ten times in a row.  And if your show isn’t for a class where extra credit applies, create some other incentive for actors willing to go the extra mile.  And whether for a class or not, you can require this assignment for your students who fail to memorize their lines by a certain date.
  4. Have students rehearse even when they’re not rehearsing.  Many actors find that they best memorize their lines by repeating the dialogue over and over.  You might not have the time to rehearse a scene as many times as it would take for an actor to learn his lines, but that doesn’t mean the actor can’t rehearse off the stage.  Most plays don’t require every actor to be onstage for the entire show, which means there’s a considerable amount of downtime for individual performers while you rehearse with others.  Students can utilize this valuable time to run lines with one another.  If one actor in particular is struggling to learn her lines, ask a production assistant or even a parent volunteer to sit and read the script aloud with the student.
  5. There really is an app for that.  Nearly every student has a smart phone these days.  I’m sure your actors are always texting and tweeting while you’re trying to rehearse.  Have your cast put their phones to good use and download one of the many apps specifically designed to help actors learn their lines, such as Scene Partner, Line Learner or Rehearsal.  Some of these apps even provide interactive games that take the line learning process to a new level.  Don’t forget to test out a few of these apps yourself so you’ll know which ones to recommend to your students.

You may not be able to learn the lines for your students, but following these tips will at least help you guide and encourage your students during the strenuous task of getting off book.  With a few of these tricks under your belt, your actors should be well prepared to memorize their lines, allowing you to focus your energies on other things —  like those walls that are still a little too orange.

Pioneer Drama Service