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Memory and the Actor's Mind

Help from Experts on Memorizing Those Lines


Michael Boyd, Royal Shakespeare Company, acting, actors, memory, memorization

Michael Boyd

Photo courtesy Royal Shakespeare Company

What is the connection between an actor’s mind and memory, or between any of our minds and the ability to retain words, thoughts, or motions? How do actors learn not only to memorize their lines but to connect with their characters and with audiences?

Two experts in these areas – Dr. Oliver Sacks, professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia, and Michael Boyd, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company – discussed the concept of memory and the actor’s mind in a forum moderated by Columbia President Lee Bollinger.

Every Actor’s Panic

Every actor has felt it, that sense of panic rising as he or she looks at all the lines waiting to be memorized, that must be word perfect for the attentive audience scowling just a few feet away.

Michael Boyd can do you one better. A few years ago the RSC committed to staging all of Shakespeare’s history plays over a three-year period involving 30 actors. About half-way through the effort, they revived four of the first plays they had produced more than a year earlier. Each actor had played multiple roles with thousands of lines, according to Boyd.

“This process started with the actors going through their lines, panicking,” he recalled.

The cast gathered in a rehearsal room and tried to say their lines as best they could. The result? “It wasn’t very good,” Boyd said.

Broken Bits of Memory

Then they staged the scenes. It was only in a rough way, no sets, no costumes. The actors merely put the plays on for themselves, and something magic happened.

“It was very nearly word perfect,” Boyd said.

Boyd believes the lines were there all along. “Broken bits of memory,” he called them. They were waiting for more than the actors merely reaching into their minds for them.

“It required a combination (of memory) with the emotions and movement,” Boyd said.

Then when they added an audience for the actors, and they were required to communicate with someone, “it was absolutely pitch perfect,” he said.

Making the Lines Your Lines

Boyd spoke of taxi drivers in London, where the streets are a spaghetti bowl of curves and confusion evolved over centuries. Yet cabbies, to get their permits, must pass an extensive test proving they have acquired what is called “The Knowledge,” that is a mental map of every corner of London.

If the test is done in a class on paper, the new cabbies can’t do it, but put them in the cars and the knowledge flows through them as they recreate in their minds the routes they have driven and the cues they have internalized.

Oliver Sacks says it is this internalization process that makes the difference for actors in memorization.

Sacks is a world-famous author, having written The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and he is the inspiration for Robin Williams' character in the film Awakenings.

He recalled spending time with Williams and noting, after a few days, that the actor was unconsciously mimicking Sacks’ particular facial and body movements.

“The journey has to be played out . . . and internalized,” he said.

The Role of the Role

Both Boyd and Sacks agreed that when it comes to memorizing and improving memory actors have an advantage because they are adopting a role to play. Boyd said actors are generally open to new emotions and new experiences. As such, by identifying with the character they play, they can get “in the zone,” where something more than memory is going on.

“You are not trying to recall what you are doing,” Boyd said. “You are simply in the act of doing it.”

Sacks tied the concept back to that of memory and motion. Roles give coherence to what the actor is required to memorize; they give cues, as movement does.

“The lines would have no coherence, no narrative sense, would not hold together unless related to a role,” he said.

Memory Helpers

Summarizing the experts, for help in getting in “the zone” when it comes to memorizing your lines:

  • Motion – Give yourself physical cues, particularly your required motion on stage, so that your brain is being helped in recalling stored information.

  • Communication – The requirement to communicate to an audience prods your brain. Say your lines aloud to someone, even in early stages.

  • Internalization – Make the lines your lines. Become that character you are playing in the situation the character is saying those words.

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