Monday, December 08, 2008


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 d├ęcor, 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.


Jesus Reyes said...

Very interesting. A few years ago, between marriages, I spent a lot of time in a dance studio learning ballroom and other forms of dancing. There, I discovered something called muscle memory. You don't just know the dance steps by memory, but also by muscle. I didn't have muscle memory. I did not become a great dancer. I did meet my wife

MarcLord said...

Hi Jesus,

Man, I am worse than lost on a dance floor, any kind of dance floor. Yet I easily built up muscle memory in playing football, which is a kind of choreography.

You could put me on a field today, and while I'd get injured or fatigued, I can play. A great deal of it is mental, but it's still in my whole body. It was a savage joy to do, and maybe that's what people can get from some kinds of intense dancing.

MarcLord said...


Dance has one big advantage over football. Many happy returns to you and your wife.

Anonymous said...

I find it incredible that actors can memorize book-length plays, plus deliver nuance and inflection, when I can't remember a phone number long enough to cross the room and dial it. And I'm a CPA. The tribe you thought was good with numbers.

I sort of equate it to the endeavor of the professional athlete - especially football, where you have to place yourself corporeally at the perfect position, but then deliver a physical, rather than vocal, soliloquy.

Interesting that it involved an audience factor - I always presumed that actors delivered a superior product in spite of their audience.

We still need to do that rendezvous at the Luau. A pass for me - you're the one with the risk of disappointment!

MarcLord said...


Luau. Got it. My personal martini is called the Halle Berry. The body is a mnemonic device.

Re: audience effects, my 1A or 2A high school football team played the #2 ranked the country. When they angled off their bus, we thought, "Time to die." But at least 4 members of the offensive line, average 165 pounds, would've cut-blocked their own mothers.

We played at a neutral site, an empty stadium, and it rained hard. We creamed them, and at halftime the score was 12-0. It wasn't that close. Their coaches plead weather danger, and wouldn't take to the field in the second half, so the one of the biggest upsets in high school football history didn't count.

I didn't think until now how the whole environment threw their game off. Most of us had played football together in the crappiest conditions since we were 10 years old, in front of miniscule crowds. They were recruited from 4 or more states, and were accustomed to a crowd. It must have jammed their powers of recall.

Still Life Living said...

It all deals with the awareness of the Tao.

isabelita said...

Well, having had my nonegenarian mamacita with us for six years, I have been learning the vagueries of aging memory functions, or at least hers. She can often retrieve an experience if I can describe it visually,as vividly as possible. Sound effects help,too.
And choclate truffles sure seem to sharpen her up...

MarcLord said...


Orange cream soda. If I attain a similarly dignified age and am lucky enough to remain in my family's care, they could always brighten my mood with that. It's wonderful that you give your mom her pleasurable memories. It's difficult to imagine a better gift.