I was 14, playing nursemaid Martha Sowerby in a community theater production of The Secret Garden, and the scene was going smoothly. I gussied up my young charge, brushing her hair with a few well-practiced strokes. I asked, in a gross approximation of a Yorkshire drawl, “Have you never, ever dressed yourself?” No, it seemed she never, ever had. And then, quite suddenly, I had nothing to say in return. My line was just gone, a betrayal no less unexpected and devastating than taking a deep breath of air only to find it stripped of oxygen. I stared blankly into Mary Lennox’s face until finally, after a nearly interminable silence, a cast-member fed me the line.
As scarring as this experience was, from a memory perspective the most remarkable thing about it was that I had learned my lines in the first place. Our memory for the gist of a message is quite good—considerably better than our memory for its nitty-gritty details—but of course gist won’t cut it onstage. How did I, someone who knows precisely none of the lyrics to “Take My Breath Away,” learn dozens of lines of dialogue verbatim? How do other actors memorize hundreds?
According to Elmhurst College professors Helga and Tony Noice, a majority of actors don’t really set out to memorize dialogue at all. Rather than relying on rote repetition or clever mnemonics, most actors simply think and feel their way through the lines, puzzling over a character’s goals and emotions to determine how one sentence leads to the next. In doing so, the researchers argue, actors “unwittingly employ” learning principles such as elaboration (augmenting dialogue with rich backstory), self-referencing (relating the dialogue to their own life), and mood-congruency (embodying a character’s emotions). If only the psychologists who coined these principals had “wittingly” patented them!
An actor’s onstage movements also strengthen learning. About a decade ago, Noice and Noice, with collaborator Cara Kennedy, invited the six-member cast of a play called The Dining Room to participate in two memory experiments. Both took place a full five months after the play’s run had ended. In one of the experiments, the actors were cued with seemingly random pieces of dialogue from the play and asked to provide the next line. When the target line had been paired with movement during actual performances (e.g., a character spoke the line while walking across the stage), actors provided more accurate responses than when the line had been delivered while sitting or standing in place. This occurred even though the actors remained still during questioning, suggesting that movement improved memory because of how well the lines were learned, not how well they were retrieved.
But strutting around during retrieval matters, too. In a second study, experimenters prompted actors to reconstruct entire scenes. Sometimes the actors were instructed to move about the room while doing so; other times they were told to sit down. When free to roam, actors recalled 59% of the dialogue verbatim. They recalled just 46% when sitting. (Using less stringent measures of recall, such as close paraphrase, revealed a similar difference.) Movement is beneficial, the thinking goes, because it reinforces the dialogue. If an actor finds himself picking up a skull—and he’s already thought long and hard about why his character is picking up that skull—his soliloquy becomes more accessible in the short term and more richly encoded in the long term.
Indeed, between finding a character’s motivation and blocking out a scene, professional actors more commonly complain of dialogue coming too easily, and seeming overly stale. Premonitions are weird and scary, and audiences quite understandably expect characters to sound as if they are listening to each other. My sister-in-law, actress Caroline Macey, concurs: her goal is generally to forget her lines, connect with her fellow actors, and trust that the words will be there when she needs them.
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