He’s got ’em on the list — he’s got ’em on the list

He’s got ’em on the list, he’s got ’em on the list;
And they’ll none of ’em be missed, they’ll none of ’em be missed.
~ W.S. Gilbert, The Mikado

Learning lines has never been overly difficult for me. I’m not one of those people who arrives on day one off book, that’s not the way I work. But once I get on my feet and start moving around, the lines just come to me. I really need the physical structure in place to know what I’m supposed to say and when. Eventually I toss the book on the ground and that’s about it. There are always troublesome sections, of course, that need further work to force into my brain. Otherwise I’m very lucky as far as line learning is concerned.

Let me illustrate the sort of lines that usually give me trouble. Consider the following lines (from Last of the Red Hot Lovers):

“I use soap, perfume, aftershave lotion, turpentine…”

“I’ve never had a car accident, never had a fistfight, never had a broken bone, never had a temperature over a hundred and two.”

“…and you had this sad look on your face – so troubled, so distraught.”

“Like suffering and pain? They’re bad, but they’re second and third after death.”

“We’re all indecent, unfeeling, unloving, rotten human beings. Sick, monstrous, disgusting people…” “There are no decent, gentle, loving people left in the word. We’re depraved, lustful, disgusting monsters…”

Do you see what these lines have in common? They are lists. Lists of nouns, lists of adjectives. Many of the words are synonyms or they’re interchangeable with one another. I have to remember a lot of lists in this show. The last one is all from the same speech!

Lists stop me cold. The only way I can learn them is to resort to trickery, using various memorizing techniques, the same way you’d remember a formula for a physics quiz.

Here are some examples:

“I use soap, perfume, aftershave lotion, turpentine…”

That’s a lucky one – take the first letter of each item and you have the word “spat.” All I have to remember is S(oap) P(erfume) A(ftershave lotion) T(urpentine).

“Like suffering and pain? They’re bad, but they’re second and third after death.”

I remember all the words in this one, but I’m not sure of the order. So I look for a pattern. Aha, it’s in reverse alphabetical order. S/P/D. That’s what goes through my head and that’s how I remember them.

“…one who is kind, considerate, devoted…”

I remember this one like music. Kind is a strong single beat. Considerate is quick and staccato. Devoted’s syllables are more measured. I hear a sort of Morse code to remember that one. Yeah, my brain is that whacked.

“I’ve never had a car accident, never had a fistfight, never had a broken bone, never had a temperature over a hundred and two.”

This one is very visual, so I use a series of pictures in my head of being in a car accident, fighting the other driver, getting my bones broken from the fight and ending up in the hospital with a fever.

Here’s the doozy of doozies: I spend the first half of Act Three with the singular intention to get my scene partner to put down her pocketbook while I go get some champagne. I have fourteen lines that express the exact same intention, all using different words. Sometimes when I can’t think of any other way of learning the lines, I just have to type them all out and stare at the list until it’s burned into my cornea.

What am I missing here? What techniques do you use to learn your lines?

About the author

Craig Mason


  • Things that have worked for my students:
    –Copying them by hand ten or fifteen times, like a discipline assignment. They HATE doing it, but they memorize them.
    –Writing lines on an small, erasable white board so that they can practice their lines with their blocking and business, but still see them if they are struggling.
    –“Walking and Talking”–walking around the room with no destination, and repeating the line over and over, also trying out lin readings in the process.

  • I type up what I call “cue sheets.” I type the last part of each cue line, followed by my full line. I print that out, along with a copy where my lines are blanked out. I use the first cue sheet for the actual memorization — I read each line (or part of line, if the line is very long) aloud 5 times, then recite the line without looking 5 times. If I can’t do that successfully, I repeat the process. Eventually, when I have my lines down, I start using the second cue sheet. I read my cue line silently, then recite my line aloud. If I trip up, I flip back to the first cue sheet to see where I had the problem. I find this process to be nearly as good as having someone on book, rehearsing my lines with me. In addition, my cue sheets usually have more room than my actual script to make special notes regarding my lines.