Lights, Camera, iPad: How apps are helping actors learn their lines

Smartphones and tablets are changing industries from healthcare to textbooks. Actor and journalist David Phelan reveals the impact on the TV and movie industry

A few months ago I was filming an episode of BBC legal drama Silk – the episode is on Wednesday night. In the studio actors, directors and crew were checking their smartphones for messages. Leaving aside that these phones were almost all iPhones, what was noticeable was that a bunch of actors were using iPads on location, too.

Key among the thesps’ little helpers is Rehearsal 2 (iPad, iPhone £13.99). After all, the first question every actor is asked, the very first question, is “How do you learn your lines?” Actually, the truth is there’s no magic bullet: the only answer is hard work studying the script. You can write them out, record your lines to play them back on your iPod or turn to an app.

Rehearsal 2 is one of several winning successes among actors. Once you’ve downloaded it, you import your script by emailing it to your assigned account at the app. There used to be a charge for this by script or by the month but it’s now been rejigged so there’s no in-app purchase any more.

Designed by the lengthily-named American actor David H Lawrence XVII, the app is widely liked by performers. Its best feature is the highlight function. Once you’ve imported a script you swipe your finger across your lines to highlight them in yellow. Then, when you’re trying to commit them to memory, one touch of the Blackout button turns the helpful yellow hue to impenetrable black, forcing you to remember. Actors will tell you that the problem in learning is to read your script cues without accidentally seeing your next lines and this is a great solution. You can record scenes, speaking your lines quietly so in playback you can speak over them.

Throughout the app there are help documents or you turn to video equivalents, fronted by Lawrence, and throughout he shows his knowledge of actors’ foibles – that many don’t like highlighting lines, for instance.

There are other apps with similar intentions, like LineLearner (iPhone £2.49). Here, you don’t see your script on screen, you record the scenes from a printed copy, using separate buttons for your lines and other people’s. Then you can switch to playback with your lines audible or. Overall, though, this is a less successful app: it has a poor instruction manual, for a start.

And both this and Rehearsal run the risk that you’ll learn your lines in a set pattern and rhythm, which can be counter-productive as rehearsals progress and you change your take on the character. Which is what rehearsals are for.

The Stage has an app, too (iPhone £1.99). The industry’s trade paper was traditionally the place to look for jobs, and the app aims to find actors work. So it has a list of auditions and job searches. Unsurprisingly, auditions are thin on the ground, and are padded out with comedy and karaoke gigs.

Then there’s Scene Partner (iPad, iPhone, free but with in-app purchases), which includes electronic voices to speak other lines for you. I tested this with a Shakespeare play (two texts are included with the app, more are available to buy). Though there are actors who can murder Shakespeare, none comes close to the horrific experience of working with a computerised voice. Don’t do this.

Then there’s 2b Acting (iPhone, £4.99) is a useful resource of exercises on topics ranging from diction to sight reading. Some are included but others cost £1.99 each. There are modules on how to write your CV and diction exercises. There are video and audio elements to make the most of the app. Unlike many US-focused apps, this one has British voices at its heart. It’s written to appeal to aspiring actors and more experienced thesps in need of a brush-up.

Shakespeare Pro (iPad, iPhone £6.99) is the best of the many apps focusing on the bard. It has all the plays, several apocryphal or contemporary titles like Edward III and Double Falsehood and a helpful concordance. A section on scansion guides you through the basics of verse and an enjoyable quotes section (that you shake to refresh the screen) are also included.

Theatre Oxford Dictionary (iPad, iPhone £10.49) isn’t cheap, but it’s pretty encyclopaedic. There are biographies of everyone from Laurence Olivier to Harvey Fierstein, details on leading theatres and much more among the 2,500+ entries.

None of the apps above will make you a better actor, necessarily. But the iPad and iPhone are now crucial studio and theatre accessories. Lighting cameramen can use the ingenious Artemis Director’s Viewfinder (iPhone £20.99) to choose the right lens for their cameras, and Helios Sun Position Calculator (iPhone £20.99) so they know where the sun will be when – cloud permitting. Writers have a bunch of apps that aim to help them be creative and format their scripts correctly. And if nothing else, actors can always use their iPhone to nag their agents to get them more jobs.

David Phelan appears in Silk on BBC1 at 9pm, Wednesday 19 June.