​What's my line? Actors on memorization

learning-lines-in-dressing-room-620.jpg

"Willkommen, bienvenue ... Tradition!" Danny Burstein worked on memorizing his lines for the Broadway musical "Fiddler on the Roof" while he was appearing in "Cabaret."

CBS News

Broadway actors try to remember their lines well before opening night. And they all have their own ways of doing that. We asked Rita Braver to go in search of their secrets:

How Bill Nighy learns his lines

Even with five Emmy Award nominations for his work on the popular TV comedy, "Modern Family," even though he's been acting on stage since he was six, memorizing a new script can still traumatize Jesse Tyler Ferguson.

"Oh, I'm terrified!" he laughed, "just because it's just me."

This time, it's just him in "Fully Committed," a one-man show he was still learning when Braver met up with Ferguson in a Broadway rehearsal hall.

Ferguson plays not only a harried matire'd in a hot New York restaurant, but also some 40 other roles! "I also play all the people calling into the restaurant, trying to score a reservation," he said. "I play the chef, I play the hostess, I play the business manager. I play Naomi Campbell's assistant."

fully-committed-montage-620.jpg
Just a handful of the more than 40 characters performed by Jesse Tyler Ferguson in the play "Fully Committed." "Fully Committed"

Ferguson has been at it for six months.

What has he been doing to learn this script? "Well, eating lots of leafy greens to keep my brain sharp," he laughed. "But I haven't looked at the whole picture. I've looked at small chunks, because if I look at the whole 90 pages I have to learn, I would have to put myself into an insane asylum.

"But because I can allow myself just small chunks and I say, 'OK, today I'm gonna try and learn these 10 pages, and then the next day after that, I'm gonna learn those ten pages plus another five.'"

danny-burstein-fiddler-on-the-roof-244.jpg
Danny Burstein as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof." "Fiddler on the Roof"

A few blocks away, Danny Burstein (with a Tony nomination for Best Actor in the hit revival of "Fiddler on the Roof") shares the stage with lots of actors. But the part of Tevye, a poor Russian Jew struggling to hold on to his traditions, is arduous.

"I'm on stage for three hours, except for 13 minutes of the show," he said.

"Have you ever known an actor who just picks up a script, reads the page and remembers it?" Braver asked.

"There are a lot of people like that," Burstein replied, but added, "I am not like that."

But after 16 Broadway shows and now six Tony nominations, Burstein has an established technique for learning lines, which, he says, has not made it any easier.

And he let Braver follow him to watch the year-long process.

"You can never be prepared enough," he said. "I don't like to leave anything 'till the last minute."

"As the Good Book says, if a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick. When a poor man eats a chicken..."

In January 2015, he's learning his lines for "Fiddler," while appearing in another Broadway revival, "Cabaret."

Braver asked, "Were you ever on stage performing 'Cabaret' and found yourself suddenly thinking about 'Fiddler'?"

"Yes," he replied.

In May, 2015, it was time to work with a music coach.

And by July, Burstein's subway rides became study sessions.

learning-lines-on-subway-620.jpg
On the subway train. CBS News

"Why is it such a great place to learn lines?" Braver asked.

"Because everybody's in their own world," he said. "There's that noise from the train, and I disappear into the book."

Sometimes getting too caught up in an emotional scene: "You're standing there on the subway, with a lot of people that you don't know in a packed subway car, and trying not to cry. But that's my life!"

Jesse Tyler Ferguson also studies during his commuting time, Los Angeles style. "I look like a crazy person when I'm driving around in L.A., because I'm running my lines, talking to myself, using gestures and, like, screaming and then doing these different characters."

Ferguson was memorizing his Broadway role while shooting "Modern Family" -- those lines usually given to him the morning of a taping.

learning-lines-jesse-tyler-ferguson-rita-braver-620.jpg
Jesse Tyler Ferguson shows correspondent Rita Braver the text. CBS News

"That's the thing about TV," he said. "You hold your script in your hand, and then you put it behind my back, or behind a pillow or in a drawer and then you start the scene."

For Danny Burstein, learning lines is really homework. Last September, with the first rehearsal for "Fiddler" just a week away, he was running lines with his wife, actress Rebecca Luker.

Burstein: "Because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many, many years. ..."
Luker: "Everyone knows who he is ..."
Burstein: "'Everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.' Then the 'papas,' right?"
Luker: "Yeah."
danny-burstein-running-lines-with-wife-rebecca-luker-620.jpg
Danny Burstein running lines with his wife, Rebecca Luker. CBS News

"We understand each other," Luker said. "We understand the business. We understand each other's weaknesses and strengths and how to help each other."

"When I'm up there on stage, you know, she's up there with me," Burstein said, "and I think she would say the exact same thing."

Burstein reached his goal: he memorized the entire show before the first rehearsal.

Still, "Fiddler"'s director Bartlett Sher says that is only the beginning. "Learning your lines is like the first step to moving into the mind of the character," Sher said. "So the process of learning the lines is the process of transformation. It's the process of becoming someone else."

But Sher acknowledges one of Broadway's secrets: some well-known (and always unnamed) actors NEVER learn their lines. Years ago he found himself whispering into a microphone, connected to a tiny earpiece worn by an actor:

"I had a script and I would feed him his lines," Sher recalled. "The conversation between me and the actor knowing the lines was reading the signs as to when it looked like he didn't know what the hell was about to happen next!"

Danny Burstein wouldn't be caught dead wearing one of those earpieces, but he says that over a long career, even the most accomplished actor is bound to go blank.

Braver asked, "Have you ever forgotten a line?"

"Yes, absolutely."

"So what do you do?"

"You keep going," Burstein said. "People come to see a live performance. We're not robots. It hasn't been taped beforehand. That's the exciting experience of being there in the room -- it's immediate. You're right there with that person, and they're doing it live in front of you. Things like that happen."


For more info: