Words, Words, Words: Forgetting Lines

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly off the tongue.

Hamlet, III. 2. 1-2

You may have read recently that Lenny Henry forgot his lines on stage, during a new production of Educating Rita.

Manuel Harlan
Manuel Harlan

Yes, it’s somewhat scandalous, but it’s far more common than you’d think, and it’s not as big a deal as it sounds.

So this week’s ‘Tricks’ is more thespian in nature than usual, as I look at what to do if you do forget your lines on stage. And this advice comes from experience.

At university, I acted in a number of productions for the German Department. Which were entirely in German. And I am English.

Learning lines in English is hard enough. Learning 3 different parts in German: that’s a whole other kettle of fish!

We were performing Brecht’s Pauken und Trompeten, and first night came and went with few problems. Well I mean, half the props fell apart and our Stage Manager was stuck halfway back from Brighton. But it was fiiiine!

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Second night: I start my long speech mourning a soldier. ‘Elf kugeln hatt er gekriegt.’
And suddenly, there are just no more lines. No more words. I could not even think of a single German word.

Now, I was quite lucky: 3/4 of the audience were either school kids who only knew a little German, or family/friends who knew even less! So I took a deep breath, just said the previous lines again, and THERE they are, got the lines back.

Basically, what I’m saying is that it happens to everyone, and it’s not the end of the world! The words are somewhere in there! And if it does happen or you’re worried about it happening, here are some words of wisdom!

How to Avoid Forgetting Lines

This is kind of a Catch 22 situation.

Yes, do rehearse your lines. Over and over. Know your lines, your cues, the cues’ cues. And have them going through your head. The other day at our theatre, an actor passed me on his way to the stage. I thought he was saying thank you for holding the door. He was just going over his lines for the scene he was about to enter!

BUT, flip side is don’t over rehearse. If all you’ve got are lines rattling round in your head, your mind can sometimes jump to different scenes/dialogue. And those lines can come out instead. Which is fine if you’re doing a play in German. Less good if you reply to ‘What sadness lengthens Romeo’s hours?’ with ‘My lips 2 blushing pilgrims ready stand’!

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What to do if you do fluff a line

If the worst does happen, stay in the moment.

It’s fine to take a second to compose yourself. Lenny Henry walked off stage to do this, but feel free to just take a really long pause if it’s a dramatic scene. If it’s comedy, maybe not so long.

Alternatively, look to your friends fellow actors for help: if they see you’re struggling with a line, ad lib a bit. They can probably bring the chat round to a later line, which will jog your memory. But again, ad lib where appropriate. People will probably notice if you suddenly drop the iambic pentameter or drop a ‘yo’ into Shakespeare!

And most importantly, don’t let one little line mess up the rest of your night. Don’t overthink it, worry about it, because it will affect the rest of your performance. All it means is maybe afterwards, just look over that speech or song once more. It’s no problem and happens to the best of us, even the wonderfully talented Jonathan Groff:

And for more proof it happens to everyone, just watch any blooper reel!

Finally, and not to sound too cliche, but it’s not about how you fall, but how you get back up. Lenny Henry is receiving some great reviews, which are very complimentary about his recovery after that slight blip. So just remember, the fact you forgot a line doesn’t matter. What matters is what you do next.

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4 thoughts on “Words, Words, Words: Forgetting Lines

    1. Ha! Me too- pretty sure there’s another video with him describing that incident! So funny!
      Exactly- I don’t understand how people do like one man shows- at least with one or two others you can ad lib/prompt them subtly!

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  1. Doing a show in German only reminds me of one thing: “Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome!” Anyway I don’t think it is that big a deal; actors and singers are humans as well. It is okay to forget the lines, just so long most people don’t detect it. Some of the fans of the show will know, but that is about it. Most people in the theatre won’t know that unless it is a long-running show like Phantom, but even then more than half the people do not memorize the lines when they watch. I am one of the few crazy dudes who know virtually every line in Phantom.

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    1. Ha, exactly! Pretty much felt like singing that every time I walked into rehearsals! That or some of the songs from The Producers!
      Exactly- it’s not that big a deal, yet websites had it sprawled across the headlines: Lenny Henry forgets his lines. But they just do it to get attention- it’s not like he wasn’t able to go on- he finished the play admirably!
      Exactly- ha! But that’s awesome that you know all the lines! I’m the same with certain Shakespeare plays: I can tell if they’ve added/changed/got rid of a line in Romeo and Juliet and it really annoys me if they do!
      The worst example I can think of someone forgetting/fluffing line and it was noticable was in Spamalot. It was during ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, which every Monty Python fan knows off by heart. But the guy singing it messed up the second line, and started singing the second verse, and the whole audience sort of gasped. He played it off well though, and got some laughs!

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