Friday, January 27, 2006

How do actors memorize lines?



I came across this post on boingboing today.

It mentions a study that was done to pinpoint how actors remember the dozens of lines they need to spout off during a stage performance (I assume they were talking more about stage than screen since an actor rarely has to remember more than a dozen screen lines at a time).

A snippet:

"To get inside the character, an actor will break a script down into a series of logically connected "beats" or intentions. Good actors don't think about their lines, but feel their character's intention in reaction to what the other actors do, causing their lines to come spontaneously and naturally. The researchers quote the great British actor Michael Caine: "You must be able to stand there not thinking of that line. You take it off the other actor's face." "

This is, more or less, how I would describe it as well. I could say a line without even thinking about it because there were other factors which triggered me: where I was on stage, where the other actor was, the expression on their face, what they had in their hand, what the lighting was like, what "state" I was in, etc. It was more like I memorized the situation through rehearsal rather than memorized the script from the page.

But there's more to it than that.

Repetition helps. After a number of rehearsals, running your lines becomes similar to singing a song. You may not know what your fifth line is off the top of your head, but you will have no trouble remembering it after getting to the fourth.

Of course, any actor will tell you that there are moments where they draw a blank. They can't remember their line for whatever reason. What do you do then?

This reminds me of when I was in the Toronto Truck Theatre production of Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap". I had been hired in the summer of 1998 as an understudy for Giles (the husband) and Trotter (the cop and lead character). I had been looking over the script at home, waiting for the producer to give me a date to come in and rehearse with the cast. One day the phone rang.

Trotter was sick. Could I cover for him - that night?

...Three hours from now.

I didn't chicken out and said yes. I drove to the theatre, stepped on the stage for the first time, and tried to run my lines as often as possible without the benefit of other actors.

That night I played Trotter. The first part was easy: I walk through the door, say hello to the guests, walk off stage. No prob. Then, within seconds, I walk back on stage and have five minutes of dialogue where I am the focus. Prob. I walked back on, looked at Evan (who was playing Giles) and drew a blank.

Oops.

I said the first line that came to mind (which was actually the second line). No major damage and everyone followed my lead. From there, the rest of the night went flawlessly.

But, other than that first one, how did I manage to remember all those lines? I had no rehearsal, no visual cues, no familiar faces to read (I met the cast that day). Did I simply "feel" the character? Maybe.

The fact is that I am a visual person. I didn't have the actors' expressions to cue me, but I did have the script. You see, you could rhyme off any line from that script and I could tell you exactly where it appeared on the page. I could picture the script. I knew that a long passage was followed by a short reply. I could visualize the length and location of the line and - boom - it came out of my mouth.

So, yes, actors do memorize lines based on emotional state and visual cues from other actors and situations, but everyone has little tricks, too. I'm sure not all actors visualize their script the way I do, but it works for me if I hit a snag.

Sure the Stanislavski Method helps actors with their lines. But I'm not sure I buy the conclusion that it has every day applications:

"The key, the researchers have found, is a process called active experiencing, which they say uses "all physical, mental, and emotional channels to communicate the meaning of material to another person." It is a principle that can be applied off-stage as well as on. For example, students who studied material by imagining conveying its meaning to somebody else who needed the information showed higher retention than those who tried to memorize the material by rote. "

Uh...ok...I would call this understanding your material rather than simply memorizing the words. It just makes sense that those folks "process" the material better and thus retain it. Not a great leap in logic, there. But to say, "what they found could potentially be used by elderly individuals whose cognitive abilities are declining", is a bit of a stretch. How does Stanislavski help you tell the nurse you need a bedpan?


Acting is the most minor of gifts and not a very high-class way to earn a living. After all, Shirley Temple could do it at the age of four.
-Katherine Hepburn

1 comment:

jacksonp said...

Thanks for your insights...interesting ideas.