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Q: Do actors ever completely forget their lines? What do they do? ( Answered 4 out of 5 stars,   5 Comments )
Subject: Do actors ever completely forget their lines? What do they do?
Category: Arts and Entertainment > Performing Arts
Asked by: dho1115-ga
List Price: $20.00
Posted: 08 Apr 2006 22:40 PDT
Expires: 08 May 2006 22:40 PDT
Question ID: 716970
I'm a fan of plays and musical theatre, and I always wondered if
actors or actresses ever completely "forget" their lines when they are
on stage in front of an audience. I don't mean just forgetting a word
here or there, but "blowing" entire lines or even multiple lines. Do
they have some sort of "back-up" plan to cover their "mistakes" on
stage so the audience doesn't suspect anything? Do the other actors
and actresses that are also on stage somehow help that actor cover his
mistake? Will the play just "stop" and the curtain go down temporarily
if the actor or actress messes up too badly?

I know in movies, the director can always say "cut" and re-shoot the
scene, but what about in a live theatre where you can't say "cut"?
Subject: Re: Do actors ever completely forget their lines? What do they do?
Answered By: cynthia-ga on 09 Apr 2006 00:37 PDT
Rated:4 out of 5 stars
Hi dho1115,

This was very interesting, I learned something. The thing is, *things
happen* in live performances, there is no perfect live event. It's
expected, and the players (on and off set) are very good at damage
control and recovery. Avid theatergoers consider it part of the show,
a good faux-pas makes for good conversation.

In live performances actors are expected to know their lines, but
occasionally they do forget. There are very few ways to recover from
this event:

1) Read the cue cards or teleprompter - if available, --usually not.

2) Ad-lib - make something up until something your scene-mate says
jars your memory. This is the most common, and it's usually done with
a smile, no pretense of hiding it.

3) A stage hand will [stage] whisper your lines to you out loud, and
you repeat them --until you get back on track.

Stopping or starting over is not an option, there are no retakes or
redo's.  The show simply goes on.

Industry term for this:

Drying: When actors forget their lines on stage, they are said to have 'dried'.


Shakespeare In the Foothills Of Oregon
..."What happens when actors forget their lines? What is the worst
mistake you've made? (Answers: Ms. Barry said that they ad-lib if they
forget a line, and that her worst mistake was once sending actresses
onto the stage in high heels that almost became snared in the joints
that hold the set together.) ..."
..."When actors forget their lines, they tend to ad lib their way out
of trouble with aplomb, even while acknowledging that they're screwing
up. And their impromptu asides can be better than their scripted

Review: Performance Improv
..."Certainly, there isn't any improvisation going on in the
mainstream theatres in the area (except occasionally, when the actors
forget their lines)..."

How to Put on a Musical - Rehearsals
by John Kenrick - (Copyright 2003)
..."About three weeks into rehearsals, it is time for the cast to
start working "off book." Banish scripts from the stage! If any actors
decide to do this earlier, all the better. It can inspire others to do
the same. At this point, have the stage manager (or another assistant)
on duty to "throw" the actors any lines they forget. Make it clear
that its okay for performers to forget lines at this stage, but
everyone must have their parts memorized. The stage manager or
assistant director who "throws lines" to the actors must always do so
in a pleasant, nonjudgmental manner. Correcting actors is the
director's job..."

Chapter 4 - ?and they?re always looking to the audience?
..."Actors can forget lines and the cast will have to adlib to ?save?
the situation, a piece of scenery could fall down, lighting cues,
sound cues, technical props can all go wrong and so on. When this kind
of thing happens to a play, which is not already formally prepared to
reveal itself as an artifice, the brittle deceit of illusionism is
completely shattered..."

And [for fun] from the rarely edited Dark Shadows archives:
..."A huge part of the show's charm, for me, lies in the fact that
watching it is a lot like seeing a live stage performance: Anything
can happen. Props fall apart (or catch fire), tombstones fall over,
actors forget their lines -- or accidentally read their scene-mate's
lines from the teleprompter. Because of time- and budget-constraints,
DS was rarely edited -- lots of bloopers went on the air..."
..."At times, it seems that the actors forget their lines. Instead of
smoothly improvising some new ones (or executing some fine editing
techniques), they try their hardest to search out the correct dialogue
in an excruciating waste of screen time..."

The Colgate Comedy Hour
..."Because the show was live, anything could happen, and usually did.
Performers would forget their lines (or misread the cue cards), or
props wouldn't work as expected..."

I hope this makes your next play or musical more enjoyable!  Now, you
know exactly what to watch for!


Search terms used at Google:
"actors forget their lines" 
live performance "forget lines" 
"cue cards"

Request for Answer Clarification by dho1115-ga on 10 Apr 2006 20:23 PDT
What does it mean when actors "ad lib" their lines? I read in your
explanation that sometimes actors "ad lib" their lines if they forget
them. What does that mean (or, how do they do it)?

Clarification of Answer by cynthia-ga on 13 Apr 2006 20:33 PDT
Hi again!

To ad-lib means to do something "off the cuff" --spontaneously, with
no planning in advance. With actors forgetting their lies, this means
they would simply say something, --anything, until they get back on

This page will help explain:

Definition:  ad-lib

dho1115-ga rated this answer:4 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $2.00

Subject: Re: Do actors ever completely forget their lines? What do they do?
From: myoarin-ga on 09 Apr 2006 03:56 PDT
There are or were "prompters", once in a prompter's box at the front
of the stage, as shown in these cartoons, or standing in the wings of
the stage.

The profession of prompter is still very important in opera:

As to how actors help each other, I remember a story about an
experienced Shakespeare actor (Olivier, Gielgud?), who once adlibbed
in blank verse to bridge his partner's forgotten lines.
Subject: Re: Do actors ever completely forget their lines? What do they do?
From: probonopublico-ga on 09 Apr 2006 04:24 PDT
A pal of mine who was heavily involved with amateur dramatics had to
say some lines and then to pull his sword from its scabbard.

From the lines, it was quite obvious what was expected but his sword
refused to leave the scabbard.

He tugged and tugged without success and soon the audience was hooting
with laughter.

It was the best part of the show.

The actors eventually carried on without the sword ever appearing.
Fortunately, it was not required for duelling or any other further
Subject: Re: Do actors ever completely forget their lines? What do they do?
From: pinkfreud-ga on 09 Apr 2006 11:58 PDT
During a college production of Aristophanes' "Lysistrata" in which I
played the title role, I skipped most of an entire scene and delivered
a line to a fellow actress which made no sense whatsoever without the
portion that I'd omitted. The other actress just stood there gaping,
and said nothing. Upon seeing her fish-out-of-water facial expression,
I realized my error, and I made up some explanatory fill-in lines
which I hoped sounded like Arisophanes. Although this happened more
than forty years ago, the anxiety was so high that the incident still
ranks as one of the most embarrassing moments of my life.
Subject: Re: Do actors ever completely forget their lines? What do they do?
From: cryptica-ga on 09 Apr 2006 21:25 PDT
On one of the Broadway chat boards ( people posted
some good ones:

"During The Producers early in the run Matthew Broderick COMPLETELY
forgot the lyrics to "That Face." He just stopped and looked at Nathan
Lane who, staying in character I think, shrugged at him like "I don't
know the words!"

Everyone started cracking up, including Lane and Broderick, and the
orchestra kept vamping, until Broderick finally walked up TO THE
CONDUCTOR who handed him the sheet music. He looked at it a second,
still cracking up, handed it back, and finished the song."
- - -
"I saw a production of "Into the Woods" with some terrible problems.
My favorite, which i still laugh about today, is during the second act
prologue and the witch comes into the baker's house to discuss what
could have destroyed their house. The song is supposed to start "do
you think it was a bear?" and continue until they conclude its a
giant. However the baker goes "Do you think it was a giant?"..... The
witch awkwardly says "....Yes" and walks off-stage."
- - -
"Also There was a production of West Side Story I saw where Chino runs
out to kill Tony in the end, but forgot to grab the prop gun. He
pauses, pulls off his boot, and throws it at Tony screaming "POISON
BOOT!!!" Without missing a beat the rest of the cast continues even
with Maria saying "How many Poison Boots? Is there a poison boot for
you and you and one left for me?" It was hilarious."
Subject: Re: Do actors ever completely forget their lines? What do they do?
From: dho1115-ga on 30 Nov 2006 11:03 PST

A while back, I posted this question "Do actors ever completely forget
their lines...".

Well, I noticed some people gave me specific answers to instances
where actors actually forgot their lines, cues.

Anyways, I'm right now compiling true stories about performers missing
their lines, cues, and other "bloopers" from on stage musicals and
plays (mainly musicals), and I was wondering if I could use some of
these stories. I plan to compile these stories into probably an

Let me know if that's OK. Thanks, and thanks for your response to my question!

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