MEMORY (continued)

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Actors Learning Lines
The Memory of an Actor

Actors Learning Lines

People remember something because cues trigger memory. There are relatively few cues when we try to recall something, thus, there are few cues to help us remember in the question ‘What did Mary wear at the picnic?'  Recognition involves evaluating many clues at the same time.  For instance, many clues are provided if the question is ‘ Did Mary wear this plaid blouse at the picnic?' and the blouse in question is held up as the question is asked.  A person who fails to recall may claim that given enough time he or she will remember the answer.  The same claim can be made with recognition but is less believable. A person who needs more than a few seconds to study the blouse will probably never recognise whether it was worn by Mary at the picnic.

Some actors use memory aids to help them remember their lines.  The famous memory man Harry Lorayne has shown that actors can learn lines quickly using adaptations of the imagery method.  Interestingly, though studies have shown that even though actors know about memory aids, and use them in a few restricted situations they are not normally used for this purpose.  Actors usually learn their lines by getting deeply into the character of the play they are to perform, so that they can ‘feel' what a character would say in any particular situation.  The actor then ‘fine tunes' the actual dialogue.  One reason for this approach is that the speed of learning lines is secondary to learning them in such a way that the actor gives depth to the part. It is not only what is said, but also how it is said that is important.

Of course, there is no good evidence that using mnemonic strategies would prevent an actor from thinking deeply about the character who was saying the words. It is possible that, as in many other spheres of learning, the distrust of quick methods of learning is misplaced.  It is also true that in some situations when what is to be learned is pretty meaningless, actors have been reported as using memory aids to remember their lines.  Moreover, some individuals do find it difficult to remember lines using conventional acting approaches, and for such actors, memory aids might well be useful as mental crutches until the lines are learned and they can get ‘into' the part.    

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The Memory of an Actor

The following questions were put to Bruce James, who is an actor producer with his own company of repertory players: 

I am interested to know if you if you could tell me a bit about how people on the stage learn their lines.   I have been studying the way the Celtic Bards arranged the memorisation of their poetry; in the medieval period little was written down and so they must have had to recite from memory, passed on orally in most cases.  When potential poets went to study with a known master to learn how to compose verse in Welsh the training period lasted anything up to seven years. There were Bardic grammars with lists of words and meanings but not real dictionaries.  The poetry they wrote was often in the from of eulogies in praise of the nobles who kept them in their houses, and acted as their sponsors and from whom they received gifts, not always money, but sometimes clothes or horses. A particular nobleman would take his own poet around with him as part of their retinue when they visited other gentry.  Poetry was composed in strict metre, which is governed by rigid rules of not only how the words rhymed at the end of the line but also according sounds, which occurred within the line. Some Welsh poetry has certain repetitive rhythms - perhaps this helps the orator to memorise it. The idea then was that the bard would recite poetry or tell stories and take part in a performance around the fire where music and dancing also formed part of the entertainment. These early poets were called the ‘Cynfeirdd'.  The next step was the composing of love poems and poems about nature.  But, I don't suppose obscure Welsh poetry is of much interest to you.    

In an article I have been writing I suggest that memorising, not only words but also actions that might form part of a religious ceremony or festival, can also work as well as a theatre performance.  Even going back to the Ancient Greeks, where often the linking of scenes was performed by a chorus of voices.  Memorising can be automatic as in rote learning of multiplication tables at school. Where the person is unconsciously learning the numbers by dint of constant repetition. But there seems to be a difference between learning lines or figures by hearing them said, as opposed to reading them from a text.       

What I would like you to know from your experience, do you have any particular way of learning lines?

Does it work better to learn a script if you say the lines out loud while reading from the book? Or do you have to work at it from constantly repeating the words together with the gestures and movements with other people in the show, until the pattern begins to be automatic.

No doubt, some people are better at remembering lines than others.  I was never able to memorise poetry except for something like Rudyard Kipling's ‘If'. I've always envied people who could quote long sequences of verse from memory.  So is there any trick to it?  If you have to learn a play in a short period what would you consider is the shortest time you could allow?  And again, if you do a show once and then put it on again, how easy or difficult is it to recall what you've already learnt. Do the words themselves play a part - for instance, is it difficult to learn a play by say, Shakespeare? 

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