In my classes, I ask that my students learn their lines by “rote.” This means without emphasis or inflection. It is a mechanical way to learn your lines, where you don’t attach any emotions or objectives to the words. This process was introduced to me by William Esper when I was getting my MFA at Rutgers, Mason Gross School of the Arts and has its roots in the Meisner Technique.
I find that when students learn their lines in this way they don’t fall into a set way of saying their lines. They are then more available to be open to their acting partner’s behavior. Too often young actors fall into the trap of performing a scene based upon their preconceived ideas of how that scene should go. This memorization technique short-circuits that tendency and facilitates an exchange of energy between the two actors.
Memorizing by rote allows the student to be in the present moment. This is where we want to live when we’re acting! When fully present, we’re listening and operating from our impulses and honestly responding to our scene partner. This frees our acting from self-consciousness. When actors allow the scene to unfold naturally, spontaneous behavior occurs that is so much more interesting than any moments the students could’ve possibly planned.
The other night was the first night for my students to be off-book for their scene. I instructed them to learn their lines by rote and to not meet with their partners until their lines were completely memorized. That night was the first time these students said these words out loud to each other. And guess what? Because they had memorized this way and were instructed to simply talk and listen rather than “perform”, the scenes unfolded in spontaneous and behavior-rich ways that surprised both me and the students who were working. The actors learned in this moment that you simply cannot surprise an audience unless you surprise yourself.
Learning lines by rote is just one aspect of how I teach my students to learn their lines and approach a role. But it is a vital piece. I challenge you to learn your lines this way for the next audition or performance you have. Notice how it changes how you relate to the other actors and to the material. I’d love to hear about your experiences experimenting with this in the comments!