How To Get Rid Of Memorized Vocal Patterns

All actors want to keep it fresh, as if every line we say has just come off the top of our heads, (like we do in real life), and hasn’t been something we’ve been thinking about during our scene partner’s previous line. Let’s face it. This is a basic element of good acting, and it’s one of the hardest things to do.

One of the main problems I always had, as an actor, was saying the lines exactly the same way, time after time. I found that once I’d memorized my lines in a particular rhythm, I had a hard time saying them any other way. It didn’t matter how the other actor delivered his or her lines to me, or even if they changed them, made their lines more angry, more sad, or said them more quickly, or softly – no matter how THEY may have changed their lines, I always replied with my lines in a pre-planned pattern. It drove me nuts, and I think, it also drove my acting partners and directors nuts!

I didn’t realize I was doing this until I was almost twenty-five!

I always thought that’s what every good actor does: they learn their lines and prepare how they’d like to deliver them, in advance, and then they say them the same way, night after night. Boy, was I wrong! I had been acting in plays since I was sixteen, had the leads in several Shakespeare and Chekhov plays, and several modern plays as well. I’d always thought I was doing an excellent job.

Not until I got out of graduate school, and began working with private teachers in LA, (most of them Method or Spolin Improvisation based), did I realize I was stuck in a vocal pattern. These memorized vocal patterns made my acting wooden, and made my reactions rote, not to mention, utterly predictable! It was as if I had pre-decided exactly how I would like to say my lines, and then, no matter what the director said, I had the hardest time changing my delivery.

I finally learned several ways to get out of these patterns, and I’d like to share them here with you. They are quick and easy, and they will take your acting to a whole new level.

One of the easiest ways to keep from learning your lines in a particular vocal pattern (with the same pauses, the same emphasis on certain words, time after time) is to never say the lines out loud. I saw an interview with Jennifer Aniston once, the week before the last episode of Friends, where her fellow cast mates told the interviewer (I think it was Barbara Walters) that Jennifer never spoke the words out loud or rehearsed her part with others. In fact, they all agreed, (as Jennifer shook her head that it was true), she hardly even read the script. She’d get familiar with her lines enough to have them memorized in her head, and then she’d forget it. This way, she explained, she performed her part from a completely fresh place each time.

I heard in another TV interview, that Anthony Hopkins does the same. I recall him telling an interviewer that he actually does not read the script. He has someone else transcribe HIS lines only, and so he knows what he is going to say, but he has no idea where the part will lead him, or to what, emotionally, he’d be reacting. I’m not sure this was entirely true, as most actors will need to know the arc of a part, and this may actually be an urban myth, but I’m sure there is some basic truth to this tale. What we can learn from it, is that to be over prepared, to know your part, and the part of your fellow actors, TOO well, to have it all memorized from the get go, may in fact, hinder your performance. You may have preprogrammed your delivery and your responses to the point that there is no longer any truth in you finally speak or behave during the actual performance.

If, like me, you must say your lines out loud, while memorizing them, there are two excellent tools you can use to keep yourself from learning them in a particular kind of vocal pattern. Those two ways are using a robotic voice, or singing your lines.

If you memorize your lines as if you are a robot, you simply speak each word in each sentence with the exact same monotone inflection. “He-told-me-that-he-wants-to-break-up-with-me.” (Think of yourself as Stephen Hawking, speaking through a digital voice synthesizer!)

If you choose to memorize your lines by singing them, I recommend using melody that makes absolutely no sense, with no set rhythm and no set tune. In other words, don’t memorize them to “Row, row, row your boat…” Or your monologue “To be or not to be” could end up with odd pauses. Just sing your lines going up and down and all over the place, with high and low notes, almost like some kind of nonsense song a kid might make up. You can even memorize them in a silly sounding operatic voice. The more ridiculous you make the lines and words, the more disconnected they are to the emotional reality of the scene, the better able you will be, eventually, to put those words into the actual emotional reality, moment to moment, from one rehearsal or performance or take, to another – performing them differently each time.

About Kirsten Tretbar

Kirsten Tretbar is an acting teacher, filmmaker, and former actress. She received her MFA in Acting from USC in Los Angeles, where she acted professionally for many years.

Los Angeles + Kansas City