The truth is, when you forget your lines, there is nothing you can actually do to "lose face". Your face, your body, your personality, is essentially an illusion. In fact, the metaphor of a play or a show fits so perfectly with life. We rehearse, the moment arrives, we're on the spot, our fears arise, we find our way (or don't), and then just like that, it's over, and we want to do it again! Even if it part of it wasn't fun!
Being on stage mirrors and amplifies our experience of life, and it's a place where we can try out how we want to be in the rest of our lives: bigger, more animated, more alive, more courageous, more assertive, more surrendered. Anything you want to be in life, you can try out on stage. Which is probably why people find it a scary place to be. But it's also where you can enter a magical flow state. Being prepared and knowing your lines is the best way to enter that state.
The following suggestions are aimed particularly to public speaking, solo performance, standup comedy, and storytelling, though they're great to use also if you're in a play with other people!
Here are my 6 simple tools to help you return to the magic when you forget your lines. The pneumonic device for these tools I'm using is the word
It stands for each of the actions you can take. All these options will flow to you in a matter of seconds, but time will probably slow down. DO THEM IN THIS EXACT ORDER, in somewhat rapid succession. If you take a LOT of time with each one, the pace can start to feel slow.
- Ok, so this one you have to do before the show, but it's still the most important. Once you really, really know your lines, backwards and forwards (not literally), you are acting as a professional storyteller (comedian, speaker, etc.) Some people work with bullet points, and that's fine too. It's not how I work mainly, but it can actually let you off the hook to remember your exact script. The trap to avoid with bullet points is not to use it as an excuse to wing it! If you are following a script, you do need to memorize it to the point that you can start or stop from anywhere. Anything less than this level of memorization will keep your brain in a fear-state. You have to know it so well that you don't need to think about it. I know that sounds extreme, but it's the only way to really get to a level of comfort – and excellence – that will allow you to actually relax and be professional on stage.
- Exhale and Inhale (Breathe)
- So, the moment arrives that you're on stage and suddenly, "Eek! What's next?" The first thing to do is breathe deeply, all the way through your back body, pelvis, through your legs and into your feet. Breathing deeply brings oxygen to your brain, slows your heart rate, and shifts your autonomic nervous system out of "fight or flight" so that your blood can flow to your brain and gut instead of to your muscles (so you can think and feel instead of get ready to sprint). It might even be appropriate at this moment to smile. Depending on what kind of moment it is in your piece. Pausing can in fact convey confidence.
- Last lines: Remember what they were
- If after you've taken a deep breath or two, you still forget where you're going, just remember where you came from. Your last lines, if your piece is well-written, hold the key to your next lines. Rather than trying to remember the exact words at this point, just think logically about what would naturally happen after what just happened. "So we go to the beach!" (Eek, what's my line!? Go to the beach. What do you do after you arrive at the beach? Oh, right!) "And we strip down to our swimsuits and dive into the ocean!" Make sure your script has logical transitions.
- Attention Moves Outward: Shift the focus
- If you're still forgetting, and you're starting to feel self-conscious or spin out in your thoughts or fears, keep breathing deeply, and start to shift your attention outward. Get involved in and curious about the people in front of you. Who are they? What are they wearing? Where did they get that sweater? Isn't it cool? The idea here, is to take the pressure off and the attention off of YOU. After all, it's not about you, it's about THEM! They are rooting for you. They want you to do well. They are happy to be here. Shifting the focus for a moment from your thoughts and lightening the atmosphere up can be just the break your brain needs to reset and remember. If you are on stage with other performers or actors, this is a great time to connect with them – chances are, they'll have something to share, like a prompt for your next line. Or you'll remember what you wanted to say to them.
- Xemplify Ease: Say hey to the audience
- This is of course not something to do if it means you'll be breaking character in a play, but if you're telling a story or a joke, it's great. If you still can't remember your lines at this point, just say hello to them. Basically, you just start talking to the audience. Ask someone a question. Compliment their shoes. Share how you appreciate them being here. You might not believe this, but at this point, they still likely have no idea that you don't remember your line – and YOU DON'T HAVE TO TELL THEM. They might actually still think this pause is part of the show! And this too can convey confidence.
- ! Exclamation: Words are just that!
- If at this point you still don't remember your lines, remember that they are just words. And your presence is SO much more than that. If you can LET IT BE ok and even say, "Damn, I don't remember what's next!" in a way that is easeful, playful, and funny, there is a possibility that this moment could become the most alive, free moment of your whole show. The key is to feel self-love as you say it, and not shame. It's literally a moment where you set the tone for the entire audience. If you know it's fine (which it is), they will know it's fine. Even if you don't feel good about it, let them know you feel good about not feeling good about it. Eventually, the words will come back. The key is never to break the connection with yourself and the audience.
The only thing not to do when you forget your lines: say UM and UH a lot.