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The Green Room: How do you learn your lines?

Don’t just focus on your own lines – your scene partner is important too. Photo: Shutterstock Don’t just focus on your own lines – your scene partner is important too. Photo: Shutterstock

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​


Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA award winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

Annie Walker is 25. Since graduating from drama school, she has worked predominantly in regional theatres and is also a writer and street performer

Adam Lovett is a 45-year-old actor who has appeared in film, BAFTA-winning TV, at the RSC, National and West End

Keith Simpson is in his early 20s and since graduating from drama school in 2016 has worked on national tours and in rep

Jenny Talbot, 39, has nearly 20 years of experience in West End and touring musical theatre with occasional forays into TV, film and plays

Peter Quince, 72, works in theatre and television

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays, and toured both nationally and internationally


Albert I used to be able to read the stuff I had rehearsed, then go down to the pub, then come back to read it again, and I would know it in the morning. Now it’s a slog. I use a line learner, and have always used headphones.

Peter Just lots of time – and more of it as you get older.

Beryl Drilling, repeatedly going over them again and again.

Jenny My partner is great to go over lines with, and I do the same for him. Also, there are some really good apps for line learning now that are quite useful if you’re on your own.

Albert Be careful though. I was doing lines for a play last year about racism and rape. Speaking them out loud while waiting for the train to Penge was not wise.

Annie I over-articulate each line (whether it’s Shakespeare or contemporary) and drill, drill, drill. I take on board the other person’s lines too, really listening to them helps.

Adam Yes – it’s never a problem to learn the line ‘a quarter past four’ if it comes after ‘what’s the time’. And I try to find a way to make them all link to the previous line. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes it is fiendishly hard.

Keith I write them out over and over again. I use a lot of paper – probably not the most sustainable method.

Jenny Repetition, understanding, and sometimes a mnemonic can help.

Albert My stints in soaps in the last five years have meant lots of late nights learning lines in hotel rooms before turning up to find that younger members of the cast hadn’t bothered and didn’t know them.

JonOften the stage version of that is the reverse – people trying too hard to go off book in rehearsal before they’re ready.

Adam For some actors, it locks them into a way of performing and is awful. For others, it’s really liberating. I’ve always found it to be the latter, but I can see how it could be different for everyone.

Beryl I like to have had a couple of passes at something in rehearsal before getting off book. You can’t learn something without making decisions about thought processes, so I prefer to discover that with the other actors in the scenes.

Peter Coming off book too early is often frustrating for the other actors.

JonI genuinely sometimes remember a line from its position on the page.

Albert Yes, I often remember page turns.

Beryl Sometimes, physical actions help and sometimes imagery helps, but mainly it’s graft.

Jenny I usually find the better-written stuff goes in easily. The tougher learning comes when the writing is poor.

Annie I think what I’ve picked up on is don’t just focus on you and your lines. It’s all about the scene partner.

JonI did a show once where we never really held the book at all. Rehearsal time was limited and the scenes were, fortunately, quite short so they could be crammed before you did each one – then by the fifth time it was in the brain.

Annie Yes, just getting up and saying them out loud, again and again, is the best thing. I think being off book ASAP is a great idea.

A gripe that keeps coming up recently is being told to turn up off book

Albert It’s about what makes you feel good and secure. I prefer to be off book before I start now, but as I do very little theatre, it’s not a problem. On the telly you have no choice but to learn upfront.

JonAlso, we should probably mention again the gripe that keeps coming up recently: being told to turn up off book.

Keith Oh God, that’s so annoying. I did a job where the day before we started we got an email asking us to be off book. I am not a machine…

Adam It must depend on the size of the part. I wouldn’t want to come into one of those big Shakespearean leads only knowing 25% of it at the start of rehearsals.

Albert In the 1980s, I did a read-through in Stratford with a young actor who had a dreadful stutter. We were all anxious about the read-through and he came in and never looked up from his book once. He was word perfect so that he could manage his stutter. Brilliant stuff and a lot of work.

Peter I’ve been at read-throughs where an actor has been off book – but, of course, not accurately so – which is really irritating at a read-through. If they want you to be off book, they should pay you for the week you spend doing it.

Albert Bollocks. It’s your job to be prepared. You say you can do the job and part of that agreement is that you will know the lines.

JonI guess the question is whether learning counts as pre-work preparation or not. The agreement is that you’ll know the lines by the end of rehearsal, not the beginning, surely?

Keith I agree, surely being prepared is doing your research, doing your text work and coming in with a ton of ideas to try in rehearsal.

Albert How and when you learn them is up to you, but if it’s a requirement of the job to be off book at the start and you won’t have a free week, then don’t take the job.

Annie I think asking for people to be off book is a good way to get actors to up their game a little… I’ve had directors say it before we start and then tell us to use our scripts.

Lines2Memory from The Stage is a comprehensive tool for helping actors commit lines to memory and learn scripts. Details at: thestage.co.uk/lines2memory

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