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How actors remember their lines

How actors remember their lines

 


By describing how they remember their lines, the actors reveal an important truth about memory.

Michael Caine in “The Ipcress File” / Photography: BFI.

After a recent theater performance, I stood in the audience as the actors gathered on stage to discuss the current play and the upcoming production they were rehearsing. Because each actor had many lines to remember, my curiosity led me to ask a question they hear frequently: How do you learn all these lines?

Actors face the demanding task of learning their lines with great precision, but they rarely do so through mechanical repetition. They did not, they said, sit down with a script and recite their lines until they knew them by heart. Repeating elements over and over again, called interview rehearsal, is not the most effective strategy for remembering. Instead, actors engage in An elaborative performance, focusing their attention on the meaning of the material and associating it with information they already know. The actors study the script, trying to understand their character and see how their lines relate to that character. By describing these elaboration processes, the actors gathered that evening offered sound advice for effective memorization.

Likewise, when psychologists Helga and Tony Noice asked the actors about how they learn their lines, they discovered that the actors were searching for meaning in the script rather than memorizing lines. Actors imagine the character in each scene, take the character's perspective, relate the new elements to the character's background, and attempt to match the character's mood. The lines of the script are carefully analyzed to understand the motivation of the characters. This in-depth understanding of a scenario is achieved by actors asking focused questions, such as Am I mad at her when I say this? Later, during a performance, this deep understanding provides the context allowing lines to be recalled naturally, rather than recited from memorized text. In his book Acting in cinemaActor Michael Caine described this process well:

You should be able to stand there without thinking about that line. You take it out of the other actors' faces. Otherwise, for your next line, you are not listening and you are not free to respond naturally, to act spontaneously.

This same process of learning and memorizing lines through deep understanding enabled a septuagenarian actor to recite all 10,565 lines of Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost. At the age of 58, John Basinger began studying this poem as a form of mental activity to accompany his physical activity at the gym, each time adding more lines to what he had already learned. Eight years later, he had memorized the entire poem, reciting it over three days. When I I tested it at 74 years old, giving him couplets taken at random from the poem and asking him to recite the next ten lines, his memory was almost perfect. Yet he did not accomplish this feat through mindless repetition. During the course of studying the poem, he came to a deep understanding of Milton. Basinger said:

During the incessant repetition of Milton's words, I really began to listen to them, and every now and then, as the poem began to take shape in my mind, an idea would arise, an understanding, a delicious possibility.

By describing how they remember their lines, the actors tell us an important truth about memory: deep understanding fosters lasting memories.

A memory strategy for everyone

Deep understanding involves focusing your attention on the underlying meaning of an item or event, and each of us can use this strategy to improve memory in our daily lives. Buying an apple at the grocer, for example, you can look at its color and size, you can say its name, and you can think about its nutritional value and use it in a favorite recipe. Focusing on these visual, acoustic and conceptual aspects of the apple corresponds to superficial, moderate and deep levels of transformation, and the processing depth who is devoted to an object or event affects its memorability. Memory is generally improved when we do deep processing that makes sense of an item or event, rather than superficial processing. Given a list of common nouns to read, people remember more words in a surprise memory test if they had previously attended to the meaning of each word rather than if they focused on the font or sound of each word.

Deep, elaborate processing improves understanding by connecting something you are trying to learn to things you already knew. Retention is improved because elaboration produces more meaningful associations than superficial processing links that can serve as potential cues for later memorization. For example, your ease in recalling the name of a specific dwarf in Walt Disney's animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, depends on the cue and its associated meaning:

Try to remember the name of the dwarf that starts with the letter B.

People often have trouble finding the correct name with this clue because many common names start with the letter B and they are all wrong. Try again with a more significant signal:

Remember the name of the dwarf whose name is synonymous with shyness.

If you know the Disney film, this time the answer is simple. Meaningful associations help us remember, and elaborate processing produces more semantic associations than superficial processing. This is why the significant signal produces the name Shy.


John Simon is professor emeritus of psychology and professor of neuroscience and behavior at Wesleyan University. He is the author of Memory and films: what films can teach us about memoryfrom which this article is taken.

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2/ https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/how-actors-remember-their-lines/

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