W. Timothy Gallwey said that our Performance is our Potential minus Interference. Interference is the mental obstacles that prevent us from achieving our best.
One of the biggest obstacles to achieving the most as actors is self-sabotage. Whether we experience fear of failure or damaging perfectionist tendencies, we’re all capable of sabotaging our own progress and potential.
And one of the biggest areas of self-sabotage is line learning or line memorisation. Learning your lines has consistently been the single most sabotaging activity that I have experienced in my career as director for film and theatre and acting coach.
It probably is one of the least enjoyable parts of acting for most actors. But the stories that I hear from clients on set and in rehearsal are horrifying. Actors finally getting off book by the first performance. Actors on long television shoots who are in scenes with more senior performers who clearly haven’t bothered to learn their lines. Actors coming back from film shoots where the only other actor in the film didn’t want to run lines - and the reason becoming very apparent once they start filming the scenes - the other hasn’t learned the lines.
Is this an industry of professionals? Or is this the standard we’ve set for ourselves? Because it’s bloody shameful. It’s a core part of your job and it shouldn’t be a matter of ‘maybe’ they’ll be good enough.
There can only be a limited number of reasons why actors would struggle to get their lines down.
They are lazy and can’t be bothered.
They aren’t in the habit of learning lines.
They have a medical memory issue.
They haven’t developed effective methods of learning lines.
Let’s look at each individually.
If you are too lazy to learn your lines - or too busy, or you don’t think it’s important to learn them well, then you need a reality check. Learning lines is absolutely essential to the success of an acting performance. And if you can’t be bothered to learn them for your performance - then learn them for your fellow actors, whose performance you are filling with unnecessary stress as you fanny about trying to remember the lines you weren’t professional enough to learn. I’ve heard some actors say they shouldn’t learn lines since they aren’t paid until the first day of rehearsal. There is some validity to that. Except, when you compare this to film actors, who get NO rehearsal and must know their lines for their first day on set, this argument’s flimsiness crumbles to the ground.
If you aren’t in the habit of learning lines, that’s either because you haven’t done it much before and you should make a practise of getting good at it.
OR you aren’t in the habit of learning lines properly and you’ve spent a considerable part of your career lying to yourself about how it’s not too important. It fucks up performances, it takes you out of the moment and it drives your scene partners nuts. Stop being so utterly selfish.
If you have a bona fide memory problem - fair enough. But to be honest, you might have to focus on something like improvisation or a career in something else.
Finally, if you haven’t developed effective methods of learning lines - then I have some sympathy for you. Some. Because it’s still an important part of your training, or job - whichever stage you’re at.
And you must develop effective methods. Because when you have effective methods - then line learning is quick, painless and fun.
When it’s not, when it’s slow, agonising and it sucks, no one wants to do it. So building effective methods is your biggest action to take.
In coming blogs, I’ll make some suggestions about how to learn lines and improve your line learning skills.
To You, The Best
Mark Westbrook is the Senior Acting Coach and the Course Leader of the One Year Full Time Acting Course at Acting Coach Scotland.