We Need to Talk About Memorizing Your Lines: Supported with Communication Theory

Devereau Chumrau and Josey Montana McCoy in Alex Burkart’s ATLAS PIT

In classes I keep hearing the question: “do I have to memorize my lines?”  It’s hard to pinpoint the reason behind this, except for the guess that these actors don’t want to put the work into doing it, or they are simply scared that if they do have to memorize their lines they won’t remember them during the performance or audition.  If that is the case, believe me, I’ve been there.  And oftentimes in auditions you do want your script to be up there with you as a crutch, because not having it can lead you down the terrifying path of getting completely lost, and not being able to find your way back… at all.  Eventually leading to the dreaded “can I start again?” which feels like the ultimate nail in the coffin.

This entry however, is going to give you the communication theory reason of why you should memorize your lines, or at least be so familiar with them that it won’t lead you to the traps I’m going to be discussing later.


For immediate answers to “Do I Have to Memorize My Lines?” go with the following:

Is this a performance? (you are presenting this to a paying audience): Absolutely yes.

Is this an audition? (you are having try-outs for the part): Be familiar with them as much as possible- meaning you only have to look down occasionally, if at all.

Is this a rehearsal? (you are practicing for a performance): Beginning of the rehearsal, no; close to a performance, absolutely yes.

Good.  Now that we have the quick answers out of the way, let’s get into the “why.”


In order to understand the “why” we have to be familiar with communication theory, particularly the communication process model.  There are multiple, and you can find additional sample diagrams here.  Because I want to keep this entry as simple as possible, we will only be discussing the interactional model, and I will save the transactional model for a later day.

In the communication process model we have two individual components: the sender and the receiver.  In the acting world this could be two actors, an actor and a reader, an actor and a director, etc.  For your convenience I’ve provided you with amazing stick figure diagrams.

Interactional Communication Theory Model: Sender/Receiver

It is the job of the sender to disperse communication and the receiver to receive it.  The receiver will then process the information received (known as decoding) and send it back to the sender.  Because of this give and take, in relationship to acting philosophy, there is no one person set as the receiver and no one person set as the sender.  They are constantly switching positions giving and taking information.  This information in acting comes in the form of behavior (what we say and do to one another).

NOTE: It is key to realize that when using the term listening we are not only referring to what we do with our ears.  Hearing something is exclusive to the auditory act.  Listening is something we can do with our bodies, faces, eyes, behaviors, etc.  When we discuss this communication model we are referring to listening as the communication, rather than hearing. 

Back to the theory.  When someone disperses information or gives some sort of communication (or behavior), it travels down something called a channel.  If two people are speaking in a living room the channel might be the air between the two of them.  If someone is hearing a dog bark outside, the channel is the distance from that person to the dog.  If someone is broadcasting a message out via radio waves, the channel is through the microphone into the electromagnetic waves.  In acting, this channel is highly influenced by our given circumstances (or the imaginary circumstances that tell the story).

Interactional Communication Theory Model 2: Integration of Channel

As we continue to encode/decode the messages in the channel, feedback is triggered.  You may have heard the Stella Adler quote “acting is reacting” somewhere along the line.  This “reacting” is technically feedback.  So you can think of an acting scene nothing other than messages sent through a channel, creating reactionary behavior (or feedback), under imaginary circumstances.  You don’t get more technical than that.

What sometimes happens to this channel however, is something called interference.  Interference is everything that could potentially get in the way of the message being communicated through the channel.  This can be something as simple as an air conditioner humming, loud music playing at a club, or something more complicated such as someone being gagged by a kidnapper.  The important thing to realize is that interference creates difficulty in the ability for the sender and receiver to communicate. In the scope of acting, there are two types of interference: that happening to the character under the given imaginary circumstances (examples: poor cell phone reception, being blindfolded, being locked in a room) and that happening to the actor in the performance space/audition room (audience members sneezing/coughing, talking during a performance, cell phone ringing, a producer snickering about a meme on Facebook, etc).  As we can see, actors have to deal with A LOT of interference. No wonder we acting teachers prioritize focus.

Interactional Communication Model 4: Interference

Now we get into our main question: Do I Need to Memorize My Lines?  The answer is: absolutely yes.  The reasoning is that when you aren’t memorized you are creating additional interference for you communication process.  Acting, as we said, is nothing more than people communicating (encoding/decoding/reacting) honestly with need under given circumstances (which may include additional interference).  When the actor chooses to create additional interference (that is not called upon within the plot of the story), they are shutting their mind and body off from being able to distribute or decode information.  Therefore you will never be successful if you don’t memorize your lines.  Because the most you can communicate to is the page, or to your brain trying to recall the unlearned lines.

Interaction Communication Theory Model: Audition Setting

Similarly, this reasoning is why I am so against giving line readings as a coach or teacher.  If a person is thinking about “how” they have to say the lines, they cannot adequately be in communication with their sender or receiver, therefore causing problems with the communication process.


In addition to the script being in our hands, there is additional interference that is happening that actors also have to deal with.  There could be “physiological interference” that might result from the actor being ill or injured.  There might be “physical interference”- particularly from the audience members watching- (coughing, sneezing, talking, etc).  There might be “psychological interference” or the things distracting you from being completely present (such as the baggage of a fight you just had with a significant other).  And finally there might be “semantic interference” (like a director using some type of jargon in an audition room you don’t even understand).  If all of this interference could potentially be existing during your time to create, why would you put the additional interference of not knowing your lines on top of all that?  It’s completely overwhelming! (“The Communication Process Model”)


Now- when you have a big audition, you should ask yourself: is the stress of me having to remember all this under such high stakes going to create more interference than I would normally have just looking down a couple times during the communication? If the answer to this is “yes” by all means, use your paper.

If you however are in dress rehearsals, or working on a scene for an extended amount of time, and you are still clinging to your script, you are shutting down one of the most important (and exciting) parts of the rehearsal process.  And that is allowing the communication process model to give you the discovery of completely being in the moment, and to practice actually listening opposed to fake listening.



Fake listening is when an actor identifies “looking at their partner” or “playing reactions” as listening.  Oftentimes when this happens the actor becomes so concerned with “looking at their partner” they create an interference that doesn’t allow them to actually listen.  Or in the “playing reactions” category they become so consumed with “showing” that they are listening, that they actually aren’t listening.  We as humans know how to communicate naturally.  We don’t have to give the illusion of it as long as long as we actually commit to doing it.



Wiring this model up to circumstances and need will really make your performance shine.  And I think you’ll be surprised as an actor how much easier it will be to learn your lines if you focus on the messages being given to you by your partner(s) through words and behavior, rather than being consumed with the piece of paper getting in your way.

So moving forward- don’t ask me if you should have your lines memorized ever again.  The answer is absolutely yes.  Be in the moment.  Communicate with one another.  It’s what stories, acting, and humanity honestly are all about.




“The communication process model: Use it to get your message across effectively.” Educational Business

Articles, EBA, 9 May 2016, www.educational-business-articles.com/communication-process-model/.


Special thanks to my wonderful SLP sister-in-law Megan Burkart who collaborated with me on this blog entry.  You rock!