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Film & TV

Learn the Secret to Memorizing Lines With Helen Mirren

Written by MasterClass

Nov 16, 2018 • 4 min read

Scripts can seem intimidating, especially for fresh actors or inexperienced public performers.

Written by MasterClass

Nov 16, 2018 • 4 min read

Beginner’s Guide to Memorizing Lines

Whether it’s a feature film or television series you’re working on, employ these common memorization techniques to master your material.

1. Read the Whole Script First

Before you do anything else, read the entire script through. Make note of characters, story progressions, moods, transitions, and anything else that sticks out to you.

A sense of the whole story provides a solid direction, which allows you to stay on track as you work to memorize individual lines and can provide invaluable clues to help you remember words or lines, especially if you know what’s coming up on the pages immediately after.

2. Highlight Your Lines

Once you’ve done a full read-through, go through the script again and highlight your lines. This makes it easier to not only find the spots in the script that you need to focus on, but also to refer back to them when you’re practicing them later.

3. Write Through the Trouble Spots

One of the more effective memorization techniques, especially for visual learners, is to write your lines out. There’s a proven link between memory and writing; pull out some flashcards and write your lines well reciting them to yourself. The act of writing is usually enough to leave a strong impression on the mind, and therefore the memory, too.

4. Practice Out Loud

Another common memorization technique is saying lines out loud. Start by reciting your lines by yourself. You can also practice emotions and go through blocking in your head while you’re at this point in the process.

A scene partner is a great person to practice your lines with out loud. Scene partners are usually fellow cast members, though they can be fellow students in an acting workshop, too. If you are not already paired with a scene partner, or are working on a solo performance, try asking a trusted friend or family member to practice lines with you.

How to Memorize Lines Like a Pro

Acclaimed actress Helen Mirren has a lot of experience memorizing lines. From Shakespeare to procedural dramas, Helen’s acting work has demanded extensive memorization. Once you feel comfortable with the methods illustrated above, learn to master memorization techniques with Helen Mirren’s expert tips.

1. Deconstruct the Script

Breaking down a script is a very personal process that will vary depending on the amount of material you are preparing at once.

The method Helen uses to break down a massive script and memorize her lines is to literally deconstruct it. When she starts learning lines for a new project, she asks for three copies of the entire scripts. She keeps one of them intact in order to keep track of the arch of the story and then cuts up the other two. She cuts her scenes out, puts them in envelopes, and then takes them out week by week to memorize.

When working on Prime Suspect, she actually posted her scenes all around her hotel room, which allowed her to stay in the world and know where she was in the story amid a massive amount of words.

2. Memorize Scene by Scene

When you’re memorizing lines, you don’t need to memorize everything all at once. Not even Helen does that.

“I don’t have to hold the whole film or the whole series in my mind,” Helen says. “All I need to concentrate on is the next week’s work. So I’m always one week ahead of myself.”

Start by memorizing one line. Once you have that down, add another. Keep going until you’ve tackled the entire script. You might be surprised at how much your memory can hold — and how quickly you get there.

3. Think About Your Character

Getting to know your character at a gut level is essential for a great performance. But it’s also a good way to help you memorize your lines, as knowing your character’s deep motivations can help boost your memory.

Dog-ear each scene your character appears in, and then return to each, writing the subtext in the margins. Subtext can just be one sentence, or it can be a whole paragraph, but it should be specific to every individual line in the scene as opposed to an overarching idea.

4. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Finally, the absolute best way to memorize lines isn’t any kind of hack or trick at all. It’s repetition. That’s it. Read your lines; recite them; attend rehearsals. Repeating your lines over and over and over again is the key to engraving them on your memory. When preparing for her role in the Shakespearean drama The Tempest, Helen spent two full months prior to shooting learning all her lines.

Remember: The mind is like a muscle. It needs exercise. Even the most experienced professionals have to work out in order to stay in shape. While memorizing your first script may seem like a Herculean task, just take it step by step. You’ll get there.

About Helen:

Helen is one of the greatest actresses of our time—not to mention an Academy Award winner, Emmy Award winner, Tony Award winner, and Golden Globe winner. Though she did not attend drama school, Helen underwent intensive training at the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company in London, and also spent a year traveling the world in Peter Brook’s experimental theater company.

She is known for her work both on stage and on film. Helen earned mainstream acclaim for her role as detective Jane Tennison over seven seasons on the BBC show Prime Suspect. She is well known for her portrayals of historical characters, most notably Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Elizabeth II.

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