How to know it backwards

I recently responded to a request for tips to help with learning lines.  My suggestion was something blatantly obvious that I only discovered after nearly forty years of doing drama on a pretty much daily basis. Learn them backwards, I said. It seems completely counter-intuitive, but it really helps, and it works not only for lines but for the whole rehearsal process.  It’s not just useful for actors, but for anyone who is preparing to appear in public.

Of course, I didn’t mean that the actor should literally learn each line backwards.  What I meant was to learn the last line first, then the one before that, then the one before that and so on. This has several benefits:

  1. The lines you know best will be the final ones, and so as you progress through your performance your confidence increases.  The reverse is true if you start at the beginning.
  2. You can automatically review all that you previously learned simply by carrying on from the newest section that you add.  For example, when you’ve learned your fifth page, test yourself, and then just keep going to reinforce the other four until you get to the end.  The final part of your performance will get stronger and stronger.
  3. By being familiar with what lies ahead, you can add nuance and emphasis in the new sections as you take them on board.
Malcolm Sim as Holmes and Anthony Hayes as Watson in Spare Parts Theatre’s production of The Sherlock Holmes Solution

The last should be first

This works supremely for overall rehearsal. If you are producing or directing an event you may encounter resistance from your cast if you suggest this approach, but it really works.  Start by insisting your performers prepare the final scene or section first. This should include learning all their lines for it. The biggest benefit from this approach is that the best-known part of the production is the end.  You will hear the following objections:

  1. We can’t work out the end unless we’ve done the beginning and the middle. Complete rubbish. Screen dramas are often shot entirely out of sequence for practical or financial reasons. A film actor making such a complaint is likely to have a short career. (Ironically, they may be doing the end of it first!)
  2. We can’t perform the end well unless we’ve done the beginning and the middle. See above. Film producers can’t afford to listen to that and it is simply not true.  With respect to rehearsals, starting with the end does not mean you won’t return to it and be able to tweak or adjust it.  In fact, as with the third benefit listed above, it can actually accelerate and enhance the rehearsal of the earlier scenes because you are much more aware of the conclusion towards which you are working.
  3. The beginning will be the weakest part. And that is somehow worse than the end being the weakest?  Just make sure you get the whole thing up to standard, but make it better as it goes on.

Starting at the end can seem nonsensical, but in fact it is, without doubt, a very wise way of preparing.  Working backwards is by far the best way to be ready to go forwards.

Amy Llewellyn as Maureen and Victoria Glover as Myra in the uneasy theatre production of Making Myra

Uneasy play scripts

Making Myra


Maureen: You made yourself.

Myra: I am not myself.

Maureen: Then who the hell are you?

Myra: A fiction.  A tragic heroine. Antigone, Medea, Medusa. The wicked witch. The devil’s bitch. I’m the repository of all your deep-rooted, child-scaring psychology.  I’m the anti-Christ as created by a million child-molesting journalists. They made me what I am now.  I can’t un-write myself.  I must play out this role for ever.  No applause.  No final bow.  As many encores as you like.

The Sherlock Holmes Solution


WATSON:  And now?

HOLMES:  Now we look to our shrouded stranger.  The person who committed the crime.  Who was it this time?  Whose face?  The one we most fear to find.


HOLMES:  How many times have you heard me say that if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable must be the truth. The one thing that I cannot eliminate from this crime, Watson, is the inconceivable.

WATSON:  You still need rest.  Try again later.

HURST:  What are you saying, Mr Holmes?

HOLMES:  I have unmasked the shrouded stranger, and found – myself. 

WATSON:  Not possible..

HOLMES:  That’s precisely what it is Watson.  I cannot find a shred of evidence to eliminate me from my own inquiry.

Also available, from:

Making the Grade

Making the Grade was awarded first prize (Best play for a youth cast) in The Drama Association of Wales One Act Playwriting completion 2011.

It is the story of two refugee women who need to find a source of income to remain resident in the country of their choice.  Jasmine is a seventeen-year-old student dependent on her older sister India who has just qualified as a Performing Arts teacher.

On the morning of a vital job interview India is unwell following a night out, so Jasmine impersonates her and gets the job at the college where she is about to enrol as a student. As a result of an identification photograph being taken the two sisters are trapped in a situation where they must pretend to be each other for the next two years.  Hence the student becomes the teacher and vice-versa. Complications soon arise and somehow they must find a way through the problems or face discovery, punishment and deportation.


JASMINE: That was very good Jasmine.  Did you make it up yourself?

INDIA: Yes Miss.

JASMINE: First name terms please, Jasmine.

INDIA: I think I’d rather be deferential.

JASMINE: Would you like to define the term deferential, Jasmine?

INDIA: I don’t feel it is my place to do that.

JASMINE: Can you share your inspiration for the piece with the class?

INDIA: Oh, I think it’s probably just teenage angst.

JASMINE: I doubt that.

INDIA: Well that’s your choice.

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