How Do You Learn All Those Lines?

So, I’m going off to do a play soon. I was talking about the show to a friend of mine who has absolutely no involvement in the theatre and he asked me that age-old question, “How do you learn all those lines in two weeks of rehearsal?”

I don’t really see “learning lines” as a task when preparing for a play. I think about the character, the story, the tone, the interactions, but I never think of the mechanical act of “learning lines.” One day you’re stumbling around with a script, the next day you’re still holding the script but trying to make eye contact with your scene partner, and eventually you detest holding that script in your hand because it’s holding you back from progressing, and eventually you just put it down. That’s how it’s always worked for me.

Most actors are asked this question a lot and I never really have a good answer for them. I told him that it was part of my job and there are many parts of his job that I don’t think I could ever do.

But I heard a really good explanation from Adam Carolla’s Podcast. He’s just finished filming a season of Celebrity Apprentice and they were asking him about the shooting schedule, how much time they have for tasks, and how in the world do they get the tasks done in such a short period of time?

He likened the whole thing to an experience he had in a writing course he took with The Groundlings:

If you say to somebody, “You have two weeks to do this term paper” you’ll use two weeks. And if you say “you have two months” it’ll take you two months. And if they say you have two days, you’ll go, “Oh no, I couldn’t do it in two days” but you will do it in two days.

One of my Groundlings classes was a writing lab. [My teacher] would say, “Look, you’ve got ten minutes to come up with a concept. Here’s the rules: you’re talking to somebody through glass. That’s it. That’s your monologue. And you got ten minutes. And write down the beats but you can’t bring it up there and read it. And then you’re going to deliver a monologue, a comedy monologue based on talking to somebody through the glass.”

And you’d be like, “Are you kidding? This is going to take weeks to work out and write and rehearse and memorize and stuff.”

And the next thing you knew, you were up onstage and you had a job as an aquarium cleaner or something at Sea World. And you’re coming up with jokes. And all of a sudden you peeled off an eight minute monologue that got a lot of laughs with just ten minutes preparation.

And you walk back to your seat going, “Wow. I didn’t know I could do that. That was pretty damn good.”

Click here for the full podcast. The discussion I mention is towards the beginning. Fair warning that this is not a PG (or PC!) podcast. You have been warned.

I think that’s about as eloquently as you can describe how a play gets put up in two weeks. It gets put up in two weeks because that’s how much time you have. Is the show perfect on opening night after only two weeks rehearsal? Usually not, usually it grows throughout the run. But it’s usually in pretty darn good shape on opening night.

I actually know of a theatre company that rehearses full-length plays in only three days. That’s crazy. I could never do that. :)

About the author

Craig Mason

1 Comment

  • I smiled. I have rehearsed a play in 6 weeks, 4 weeks, 2 weeks … learning lines was never an issue. Knowing what to do with those lines and stage directions was!