This article originally published in the very first edition of The Rehearsal Room website has since been lost in more recent renovations. It speaks a simple truth and is worth re-instating.
An actor friend recently explained to me that he had once thought he was not very good at learning lines – i.e. this was a task at which he had to work. I was surprised. This was not an area with which he ever appeared to have any difficulty.
However, it would seem this self-doubt disappeared when he discovered that it is not necessarily how well you have learnt the lines which is the major factor but it is rather how confident you are that you have learnt them. Well-learnt lines without the ‘confidence’ to support them can soon evaporate. Hastily learnt lines can sometimes produce great performances if the actor is clear about the essential ingredients of story and confident that they are in control of their process.
This doesn’t mean that actors should not learn their lines. Knowing the script is well learnt can produce a confidence in itself.
However it is interesting to reflect upon the fact that if circumstances mean lines have to be learnt in a hurry then the major factor influencing success is not “if” they can be learnt but "how confident" the actor is that the story can be told.
I was always of the opinion that if you learnt the story first you could improvise lines if you had confidence. But recently working with actors who learn their lines perfectly I found that it’s unfair to them as they need certain words and lines as ques. Also for the one act and three act circuit you will be slated over missed/improvised lines.
I agree with you, when it comes to stage acting, lines are very important to know, word for word, but when it come to screen acting, you have got a little leeway, Most lines are delivered in multiple shots & takes, and to be honest a variation in the script can come as a godsend when your editing it later.