If you've ever been in a relationship with an actor, friendly or otherwise, you know they're emotion-amplifiers, they are shouters from rooftops and steepers in jacuzzis of pathos, sometimes simultaneously. Unsurprisingly, their brains exhibit differences. A fascinating public discussion was held at New York’s Columbia University this month, in which the RSC’s Michael Boyd and Dr. Oliver Sacks compared notes on memory, neural processing, and asked, How do actors memorize their lines?
Michael Boyd: We worked with about 30 actors over nearly three years on the RSC’s last complete cycle of the history plays. All the actors were in at least seven of those plays and learnt a huge number of roles. Halfway through the project, we left the first four plays behind for nearly a year. And we had to revive them. The actors began to get anxious about whether they would remember them: not only their principal roles, but the roles they understudied - thousands of lines, hundreds of states of emotions. An extraordinary feat of spatial memory was required, too: they had to remember where to go. Where am I? Backstage or front of house?
This process started with actors on their own going through their lines. They didn’t remember them. We then moved on to working together in a room, sitting down doing a line-run. It wasn’t very good. Then we decided to cut to the chase and just fling all four plays onto the stage - without costume, without décor, without all the effects. And the actors were very nearly word-perfect straightaway. It was clear that what they were trying to retrieve was no more than a broken bit of memory, only complete when the actions of their bodies and the emotions were combined together with the recall of the line. And there was a further improvement when they were not only together on stage, but also together with an audience. Then they became absolutely pitch-perfect and word-perfect, with an urgent need to communicate. I think that says something about where we keep our memory. Maybe our memory is in our body as well as in our cranium.