MEMORY (continued)

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The Actor Replies

The Actor Replies      

Bruce said, 'I suppose I am fortunate enough to have what is sometimes considered to be a  'photographic memory', which I suppose means I can recall written matter in my mind's eye as if I were still reading it.  I have found over the years that quite a few actors and actresses I have come across have this ability, which is a remarkable help in the process of learning lines. It enables you to see the length of the line you are attempting to remember and in certain cases the lines and the words themselves. However, 'photographic memories' do have their disadvantages, as sometimes the brain cannot distinguish between 'lines' and 'stage directions', which are usually italicised.  Sometimes when you come to a 'stage direction' you cannot get past it as the brain thinks it should have memorised that bit as well and when it can't remember it, it just freezes up.

Personally, I have found over the years, the easiest way to learn lines quickly is to cord on tape everyone else's lines leaving silent gaps for one's own lines; the precise length of these of these gaps can be determined by reading the actual lines quietly in your head as the tape is running.  Once this tape has been made up and, after a process of going through the script to find links, and a pattern to the lines, eventually one can do the lines almost anywhere - in the car, in the bath, and in fact anywhere where saying lines out loud is possible.  I think the ability to say these lines out loud is important as you are then rehearsing the rhythm and emphasis, and the precise way you will say the lines, as well as their actual content.

It is much easier to learn scripts where your lines are limited to one, two or three lines, or perhaps they are answers to other people's questions.  However, one of the hardest scripts I have had to learn was that of the 'Inspector' in the 'Case of the Frightened Lady', which although the character was always speaking in one liners, he was always asking different questions which had no link to the previous answers.   

This brings me to my next point and probably the most important element of my learning scripts accurately and at speed.  In real life we are constantly bombarded with questions and facts to digest, but how little or how much of the information we take in or we answer is governed by what we take most notice of in the question or which relevant facts we choose to digest when they are being described to us.  For example, if someone says to us. 'How old are you?' the most important words are really 'old' and 'you' because that tells us we have to give our own age. The words 'are' and 'how' are really superfluous to our requirements to answer the question.  Similarly a question such as '' What colour are my eyes?', you could immediately disregard 'What' and 'are'.  This is the basis of my own line learning in its most simplistic form.  I am constantly looking for links in other people lines to propel my brain to remember my own and in the case of longer lines I look for links in my own lines.  These links might be single words or phrases or just the first letter of particular words, which will tell my brain in which order the words will come. To demonstrate this in action; if someone says a simple line to me such as, 'The weather has been absolutely dreadful this weekend.  I hope next week will be better.' If my line was, ' I heard it is going to be cold, wet and foggy', first I would pick out the important bits of the line being said to me, i.e. 'weather' and 'next week' and then work out the important parts of my own line.  Because possibly in conversation you might only say ' It will be, etc, the important bit to concentrate on is 'heard' because that is the unusual word.  The adjectives would line up as C.W.F. for 'cold, wet and foggy' and subsequently when asked the question as above, my memory only has to summon up the links 'heard and c.w.f.' to recall  the full line.

I have found this linkage system to work with long and short speeches as you do not need to link with obvious subjects or words.  You can link with anything at all providing you can get your brain to recognise it, and so eventually you can link a sentence that ends in an 'e' with the next sentence which might just as easily start with an 'F'.  If the subjects don't link easily, I can look for key words, sometimes quite a long way into the sentence or along way from the end of the previous sentence to link together so that I can tell in what order the lines come and therefore recite them more accurately.

Let us take the first two sentences of your article;       

The art of storing information in the memory, is distinguished by the fact that it is ether mechanical or deliberate.  It is through practice and imitation, through the mechanical repetition of traditional gestures and speech of his or her social group, that the individual without actually realising it, memorises most of the information necessary for social behaviour, which is written in what I would term, difficult language, because it contains words not too often used in everyday speech.  This would cause problems in learning them because you would not have any basic idea where the sentence was going from its beginning.  But, first we could look for words common to both sentences e.g. 'mechanical', I could learn the sentences quite easily purely by remembering that 'mechanical' appears in both, regardless of the fact that their context is different.  By repeating the rhythm of the lines several times you become instinctively aware if you have missed any section of the lines out.  Rhythm and repetition are very important in learning lines and our rehearsals are somewhat based on both.  The constant running of particular scenes teaches your brain cue lines and moves that help you to remember your own lines. This linkage method does not work for everyone.  Debbie, Bruce's wife, is an actress and she spends hours with a card going down the page covering over her lines and learning the cue lines from the page but not actually saying them out loud at all.  When she was learning the one-woman play 'Shirley Valentine', which is 31 pages of prose in length, with very few gaps, the pages can be divided into stories, which narrow down to certain sections to be learnt separately from one another.  Debbie found that actions such as moving from one side of the kitchen to the other or from one rock to another (on the stage set) .in the Greek scene helped immediately as there were then two links or cues instead of just one with words. 

Take these links away, particularly a movement, then it can throw you completely'.  Bruce went on; 'I remember we toured a play called 'Can't Pay? Won't Pay! by the Italian farce writer Dario Fo, for about ten weeks in 1991.  After about six weeks of the tour we played the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, and got a very poor review in which we were criticised for making the whole far too pantomimic.  I had one scene where I had to secrete a small red book in the crutch of my fairly baggy trousers.  After this review I decided I would dispense with this piece of business but when I came to it, because I didn't put the book in its usual place, the link wasn't established and I couldn't for the life of me remember my next line.  I frantically searched my memory for it for what seemed an eternity before thrusting the book into its usual place in an attempt to cover my forgetting my lines, the link was re-established and the line came flooding back, so even after six weeks of saying the same lines, without the natural link I had developed for it I could not remember what happened next'.

'I have worked with other actors', Bruce continued,' who learn the gist of long sentences and gradually during the rehearsal period begin to get the real lines together.  This leads to an enormous amount of paraphrasing and if you have to learn the cue lines exactly, as of course, I do from my tape, this can be extremely difficult to play opposite as you are constantly trying to work out a new set of links and cues'.

'Some players find it impossible to learn their lines until they have the moves to help them as well and some can learn them only from actually doing the scenes with the people they are working with.  Others cannot work this way at all and have to go away and study the lines in peace and quiet.  Everybody seems to have their own particular quirks and sometimes it is difficult to accommodate all these various methods of learning within the rehearsals.  Obviously from a director's point of view I like them 'off the book' as soon as possible as then I can concentrate on performance and fine tuning the moves of the actors and their props.    

Every play is different depending on the size and ability of the cast. Most of the rehearsal periods that we do are a week and I have found this adequate for most productions.  Larger professional companies usually do two weeks but financial restraints limit us to a week and although sometimes it is a bit hairy I think I could get any play on in this time.          

With regard to the retention of lines in plays; if I know I will be doing a play again, in the near future, I can set my memory to recall the lines very quickly next time round.  But if it is a play I am pretty sure I will never do again all the lines will have gone after a couple of weeks. I would liken it to memory capacity on a computer.  In order to get more up-to-date information into it you have delete some information that is no longer needed.

I don't think this happens with every player, as I have known certain actors who can recite whole pages of script they have performed many years before.

I have never played Shakespeare so I don't know if it is easy to learn or not but I would perceive if I practised it enough and if I applied the links system to it eventually it would be as easy as any other type of play.  Obviously plays written in Modern English are easier to learn as you can sometimes guess what the lines are going to be, but any play, once you get used to the style of writing and language can be mastered by concentrating on the unusual or key words. 

It is the cue words or key words and links that activate the memory to perform great tasks of recall. Obviously some people are better than others at remembering things.  For instance I can memorize long lines of figures such as telephone numbers without having to write them down but I cannot remember details about places I've been to or things that have happened there.

I do think you can train your memory to accept specific ideas with practice.  In some ways in Celtic times, when few people could read or write, memorisation was the only way to keep alive these poems and stories.  Now with computers and widespread literacy a need for such a vast memory has diminished.   I would liken it to a list of figures that would save your life, be it 123456 or 369018: you would commit such information to memory far easier if you thought it was going to be of such prime importance and I would bet you could remember such figures by the time you have finished reading this article and indeed in two weeks time if you thought they would keep you alive.  Ask a child what number to use to phone for the emergency services and most will remember it as 999 (U.K.) because of repeated reminders of it and its importance.  In such a way the Celts, knowing that without remembering their poems they would be lost, they had to perform great feats of memory. 

In learning play lines it is the importance of your living and that the play must go on, that makes you learn the lines and then once the lines lose their importance you merely disregard them and move on to another play.   

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