Category: Shakespeare


There is no easy way to memorize  lines. You have to go over and over your lines until you know them cold.

You have to be able to say them automatically without giving them any thought. Like a knee jerk reaction. You hear your cue and – whoosh – the line magically pops out of your mouth.

The first thing to do is understand the play and where the plot goes. You need to know what happens first, what happens next, etc. in order to get a feel for what words happen when. Read and read and read the play until you understand the flow of the story.

If you are lucky, your lines will help move the plot along.

Her: Is she arriving tonight?

You:  Yes, I think her car just pulled up.

Your lines might be used to help flesh out a character or a setting. These might be harder to memorize because these lines don’t necessarily “connect” to what’s happening on stage, although they are important to the story.

Him: He’s a bit of a prude.

You: I saw him going into the movie theater yesterday.

Him: He usually stays at home and reads!

Your lines may be there to introduce a song or dance – lucky you, there will probably be some underscoring to cue you in (cue “The RRRain in Spain Stays Main-ly in the Play-hayne”).

There is no easy way to memorize (practice, practice) but everyone has a particular system for making the lines stick:

1. Writing your lives down – may be tedious if you have a big part

2. Talk into a recorder – record your cues and leave a space for your response.

3. Flash cards – with your cues on them; flip them over for your actual line.

4. Cover the line as you are reading them – read your cue, see if you know what your next line is.

5. Work with a partner – he/she must be dedicated to helping you and very patient.

6.  Look carefully for clues or signals in your lines or in your cues. One of the most obvious are alphabetical order (or a change in order). “Don’t be silly. Of course you are. You heard what the Master said.” Look for relations between words – similar prefixes or suffixes. Looks for rhymes. Listen for rhythms. Listen for similar sounding words or sounds.

Him:  She’s crazy.

You: But she keeps everyone on their toes.

7. Discover the key words in your lines. They may provide guideposts and help you move forward.

These aids will only work after you have put in time to memorize. Begin memorizing as soon as you can in case it takes longer than you anticipate. Read the line, look away, and try to commit the words to memory. Repeat many times. You must focus on engaging the brain for this. No true multi-tasking, although many find it useful to move while memorizing.

If you’ve never had to memorize lines before, you may find this need to focus to be a challenging experience but extremely rewarding for two reasons.

One, focusing will enable you to learn your lines.

Two, focusing will help you during the run of the play. How?

In the real world, we live in a world of distractions. Happily, you can memorize where there are distractions – on the subway, in a library, at the park, while working out. When you focus, you find that your brain no longer recognizes the distractions around you and you only think of the words. And this will serve you well when the time comes for performance.  You will have trained your brain to focus. Your focus will be on the actions on stage (and awareness of your audience). When the cell phone goes off, the audience member coughs, or the plane flies overhead, you won’t hear it.

You will be like an athlete making a shot at the foul line  in spite of cheering, and jeering, fans.

Don’t try to begin to memorize lines while you are driving. Your focus has to be on the road. Once your lines are memorization, PERHAPS you can recite while driving. But, please, focus on the road for everybody’s safety.

Rehearsing with your fellow actors will help tremendously as you begin to learn your lines. You will move on stage, adding muscle memory to words. You will hear the lines and inflections of other actors which will help you understand where the scene is going. You may have props and items on the set to work with – it will be easier to remember “How fragile this is,” when you’ve just picked up a piece of glass!

You are allowed to be imperfect during the early rehearsal process.

Learn the line exactly as written. It is not OK to paraphrase or ad lib your lines and consider them memorized. You don’t know which of your words your fellow actor is using for their cue – they are expecting to get their cue from you as written.

After you have a good (not perfect) grip on your lines, you can begin developing your character. But first you have to know your lines.

What tricks have you found to help memorize lines? What are some of the problems you’ve come up against?

Last month I went on a theater vacation in London, spent mainly at Shakespeare’s Globe.

I went because I had learned that Mark Rylance was performing in back-to-back performances of Twelfth Night and Richard III. This was very important to me because I will do anything in my power to see Mr. Rylance in a performance. My obsession began in 2003 when I had the serendipitous pleasure of stumbling upon Mr. Rylance performing Richard II at the Globe in my very first visit to London.

That year, 2003, I had wandered around town with absolutely no knowledge of where things were located, still jet lagged, when I found the Globe (which I had, actually, been on the lookout for).  There was an afternoon performance and I arrived as the show was starting. I asked how much a ticket would be and was shocked to find out that the price was so low. I didn’t really pay attention to what was playing – I thought I was going in to see Richard III (“. . . a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse . . . “) and had no clue that it would be a different Richard, Richard II.

As I walked into the theater, I was overwhelmed by the thrill of actually, finally, being inside THE Globe Theater. Shakespeare’s Globe! In London!! I was giddier than I had ever been in my life and the feelings that went through me as I looked around, standing with the “groundlings,” was indescribable. Of course, my knowledge of Shakespeare was still in the academic vein. In other words, I found him boring. I couldn’t understand what he was talking about, didn’t know anything about English history, didn’t understand his “English,” if that’s what it was.  Nevertheless, I found myself inexplicably drawn to Shakespeare’s Globe and I was thrilled beyond belief to be standing in the theater.

Slowly, though, I was sucked into what was going on a few feet in front of me on stage. Although I didn’t quite follow who was who, I found what was going on to be exciting and emotional. Why were these people so upset? Why were those guys scheming against the King? Who were these people??

The language drew me in first. Seeing and hearing Shakespeare performed by actors who brought such vitality to the words was a new experience for me. I couldn’t take my eyes off the King. His mannerisms were perfect, his declarations regal, his humility palpable. Quickly, I understood what was going on. Through their dialogue, I understood why those guys were scheming. Through his soliloquies, I learned what was in the King’s heart. I got it. I got it all and I was caught.

Mr. Rylance, as the King, was the key to my enchantment. He brought clarity and “honesty” to the role, gaining our sympathy by tapping into our collective subconscious. His Richard II was human and vulnerable, yet majestic. Each word was spoken with the confidence that no other word could have fit more perfectly into the sentence. Every sentence was clear. Crystal clear. All around me were audience members riveted, as I was, to the story that was unfolding in front of our eyes.  Good actors can get the audience eating out of the palm of his or her hand and Mr. Rylance had us all that afternoon. As we watched the King’s doom unfold before us, we felt the pity, the loss, the inevitability of the events. And Mr. Rylance made us laugh with Richard literally moments before he was murdered. Ah, it was not fair for any one person, a stranger, to have such control over our emotions!

Leaving the theater after the performance, I realized that I had never heard Shakespeare before (although I had seen other productions). Nothing in school was like what I had just seen. It wasn’t boring at all. It was the liveliest, most exciting, moving play I had ever seen. Every actor on the stage was top caliber. Each one had me just as engaged as I had been with the King. How could I have missed out on this for so long?

The Globe experience was a meeting of many elements:

  • Great acting matched with great writing – Rylance, the actors of the Globe, and Shakespeare.
  • A focused atmosphere of engagement – the physical shape of the Globe.
  • A focused vision of what was important and what was not – lighting, no; costumes, definitely.
  • An understanding of what entertains an audience – music carefully placed to woo the subconscious.

Mark Rylance is an extraordinarily talented actor and theater professional. You can read about his achievements in Wikipedia.  I have since seen him in two other shows in New York (Boeing, Boeing; Jerusalem). and he proved that his skills are not only applicable to Shakespeare but are skills for all acting.

But I am most ashamed to say that I had underestimated the skill and talent of Shakespeare’s writing. He hadn’t written to bore future audiences. He wrote to entertain regular everyday people and did it with a vengeance. I thought of my counterparts of 400 years earlier and saw almost the same things they did – granted, I didn’t get all the humor, slang, and political connections. But it turns out that I didn’t need to know those things in order to appreciate and enjoy my Shakespeare experience just as they had.

Now I am hooked. I want more, more, more Shakespeare. I went back to see the same show several more times that week. That year, 2003,  I went to other theaters in London and saw Henry V at The National, Ian McKellan in Dance of Death, other shows. But the Globe was the truest, most honest representation of entertainment in its highest and deepest form, for me.

That year, the Globe became the center of my theatrical universe.

I’ve written too much for the introduction to the January play. The three pages, including quotes, are confusing. Should I knock it down to one? Forget the quotes completely? Just go into the play and assume the audience will figure it out?

But I now like giving the whole play a situation to work within. It gives the play an anchor, in a way. Originally written for high school students, the play had a built-in anchor – “We want you to understand the Sonnets because it’s part of your curriculum.” But, now, people are just walking in off the street, so to speak, and have no assumed context for this play. That it is a series of scenes means that it has no story to tell from beginning to end – it’s just a bunch of potentially unrelated stories. So the intro provides a way for the scenes to connect. A reason for them to exist.

What about the dance at the end? It is traditional. Plus, I want to do it. I’ve almost always added dance to my plays. But will it be confusing to the audience? Or will it provide the energetic and emotional “boost” that I hope it will. Right now, I imagine that the actors will wear contemporary dress, so their dancing will be in jeans, Dockers,  sneakers and boots. The women will probably not be wearing dresses, although dresses would look better for dancing. So how will it all look? I think the ending dance is a great way for each actor to take a bow, but will the audience go for it?

The vision I have in my head is clear, although some of my ideas are stronger than others. Each scene must tell a compelling story. As an audience, we must be engaged with the characters. The part of Shakespeare , the character called “Bard” whose job it is to recite the sonnet during each scene,  is to be shared by all – it’s too big a part for any one person. I would love to have the sonnets recited by actors with different accents. Any way we can blend the contemporary and the “Renaissance-ian” using props, costume pieces, and/or the set, is peachy by me.  In the closing, it would be fun if we could bring the stage hands (if there are any) into the curtain call/dance.

I won’t have time to do all 16 scenes, so I will have to eliminate at least six, possibly seven scenes, depending on how much time the intro ends up taking. I only have 60 minutes, including set up and take down, for the entire play. I also have to have a minimum number of scenes – I can;t go out there with a 25 minute play – and I’m not a writer so I can’t write filler. Scene changes will only take so long, and I can’t have a troubadour come in, singing songs,  to eat up time!

I’m preparing this for a competition. I’m in it to win it.

I wrote an introductory scene to the show I will be doing in January. My goal had been to provide some kind of set up so that an audience would have an idea of the “conceit” of the play. I knew the idea in my head, but forgot that the audience is not made up of mind readers. Therefore, I wrote the introduction.

The show starts in a college setting, where students are preparing for some kind of exam on the Sonnets. The students are not happy, because they like neither Shakespeare nor poetry, and the course they are taking is a combination of both. As I have one character say, ” . . . the worst of all possible worlds!”

I also have a group of quotes that I had found that referred to how Shakespere is taught in school, what it’s like delivering lines in front of an audience, and about poetry. I hoped that the quotes would tie everything together.

But, when I gave it to DH to read, he said Nope, my introduction didn’t explain where and what the show would be about, especially with the short – very short – set up for the college setting. That was only five lines (not including the quotes). It would have been finished in under 10 seconds.

So I wrote some more to introduce the school setting and the quotes as transitions to the play itself. I came up with four pages, including the quotes. I think it is clearer now, maybe a little too wordy. I may have to delete some of my favorite quotes, not to mention take words out of people’s mouths. But I want to make it clear to any audience member – who would be coming in with no preconceived notions, perhaps not even knowing they will be seeing a show about Shakespeare – what they will be seeing.

Maybe I should follow that adage – tell people what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, and then tell them what you told them.

I’m directing a one-act of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  It consists of 16 sonnets, with accompanying scenes which show how the sonnets relate to real-life situations. At the reading I had a few weeks ago, the feedback was generally very positive, which I found affirming and encouraging.

However, one suggestion I received was that there be an introduction in order to explain to an audience which may not be familiar with Shakespeare, what was going to be going on. My reaction was that this was not necessary because:

  1. You don’t need to give an introduction to a play, you just do the play
  2. The audience would be pretty familiar with Shakespeare
  3. I didn’t have an introduction to do and I’m not a writer (clearly)

But I’ve given it more thought and the fact is that most people are not familiar with Shakespeare. Many have only learned that Shakespeare is irrelevant and indecipherable. They know from the outset that they won’t “get it” so they don’t put themselves through the misery of trying to understand – it’s so much easier to watch a sit-com on TV.

This one-act is for a competition but it’s also for a general audience. And, although the judges will be familiar with Shakespeare, the general audience will not. Most will especially be unfamilar with the sonnets. So, if I can create an atmosphere where the general audience will be more comfortable, I will be serving them well, although perhaps diminishing my chances with the judges by suggesting that the judges are dumber than they actually are.

I want to hit on three aspects of discomfort that, IMHO,  general audiences have with Shakespeare and with the sonnets specifically.

  1. Shakespeare wrote in unintelligible language that no one, not even the British, understand anymore.
  2. What was taught  in school about Shakespeare absolutely killed any interest there might have been.
  3. Poetry is for wimps and is almost as unintelligible as Shakespeare’s language. Put them together and you have a recipe for disaster.

So I must address these three strikes against enjoying the play I will present. I must face them and diffuse them.

It’s as if you are in a crowd listening to a stand-up comedian playing to a home town audience. All around you , you see people breaking down in laughter and you just don’t get what is so funny. Because the jokes are part of a different culture, you are at a loss. However, with a little information and encouragement you can become part of the audience enjoying the show.

I believe it is the same with Shakespeare. Shakespeare was the most popular playwright of his time. His audiences, even those dumb, uneducated “groundlings” who couldn’t afford a seat and paid to stand for the entire performance, got his jokes, felt his pain, understood the yearning, hopes and thoughts of his characters. We are not dumber than those groundlings, we’re just part of a different culture. With a little information and encouragement, we can be part of that  audience of 400 years ago and enjoy the same show.

My introduction will try to bridge the 400 year old gap, simply, in one minute or less, and will pick up the general audience which will be viewing my production. I will be like  Alice stepping through the looking-glass and holding out a hand to the viewer to come along. I will inform and encourage and will bring them to my side of the mirror. However, unlike Alice, I don’t have any absuridty to reveal, but the universal reality that travels through time and hits the mark in today’s world.

It’s a tall order and is going to take some thought. It’s probably grossly unrealistic. But I believe that Shakespeare well done is plain ol’ good theater and can grab the contemporary audience, if the audience can be convinced to relax, to not be afraid, and to let themselves be open for the experience.