When I meet people new to acting for the informational coffee date at the start of the process of enrolling in the class, these people often express some worry about the task of memorizing their lines. They often ask me if I have any special techniques for overcoming this obstacle. I tell them that I do have a few things to say about memorization, but that really, there is always going to be a need to put in time doing rote study for a role with any substance. I smile inwardly, as little do these hapless newbies know, but memorizing lines is the LEAST of the actor’s worries. That memorization is the aspect of the work that they find most daunting attests to how far their conception of what acting is what what it really is at this point. This is pretty much inevitable for a beginner. The question is how they will react once the true scope of the challenge facing actors begins to sink in.
I did come across something of interest recently though, that does offer some help with the task of memorization. It turns out that if you are attempting to memorize something and you say it aloud, the act of verbalizing it makes it more likely that you will remember it. It’s called “the production effect”, according to Psychology Today:
In this paper, these researchers document what they call the production effect. They looked at people’s memory for items like a list of words. They found that if people studied the list by reading half of the words silently and the other half by saying the words out loud, that [the] words spoken aloud were remembered much better than those that were read silently.
The production effect works because it makes part of the list of items more distinctive. The words you speak aloud are now translated into speech and you have knowledge of producing the items as well as a memory of hearing them. All of this information makes your memory for the spoken items more distinct from the rest of the items that were read silently.
Good to know, but the production effect has implications beyond the learning of lines. One of the things students are confronted with in my class is the amount of concerted effort it takes to acquaint themselves with the character’s reality and circumstances to the degree that they have a credible claim to embody that character. We call this process developing a “Who am I”, or a way of perceiving one’s self and the facts of one’s life, history, and hopes and fears about the future. I provide students with a framework or set of questions to pose to organize their work on the Who-Am-I, and I urge them to write it out, for precisely the reasons that the production effect entails. The physical act of writing out these pieces of information, as well as the cognitive act of ordering all of these bits of information in relationship to each other, helps these pieces of information enter the BODY of the actor, as well as the mind. Whatever you may think of Julia Cameron and The Artist’s Way, Cameron makes much the same point in advocating for the writing of “morning pages”: in the act of writing out our thoughts, we process them physically. This may or may not yield answers to our personal or artistic conundrums, but it turns up the soil, so to speak, freeing up inchoate energies to travel neural pathways they may not have traveled previously. Or whatever.
I recognize the difficulty of this. I was recently introduced to something called “cognitive behavioral therapy”, which is a process for examining damaging thoughts by identifying their origins or triggers, and then shining the light of reason on them by weighing evidence for and against them. It is a formalized process of self-reflection. In being asked to undertake this, I was handed a sheet of paper with a chart on it with columns which I was expected to fill in, which would guide me through the process.
The chart sat on my dresser for a week. I was immediately aware of the similarity between the Who-am-I process I ask actors to undertake and the cognitive behavioral therapy chart, and so I could hardly object to being asked to undertake it, and yet I felt a marked resistance to doing so. Perhaps that is partly a function of my (male) (Aries?) temperament, but I suspect many of us would similarly chafe under being asked to work out our inner struggles through a chart like this. It felt a little infantilizing. (Is it possible to infantilize just a little?)
I took note of the resistance, sat with it, so to speak, and eventually, I overcame it, and started to work with it. Did the earth move and the angels weep? No. Did I gain some insight about how to reflect on my thoughts and their relationship to my mood? Yes. As adults, we prize our autonomy, and can easily resent encroachments upon it, real or perceived. But any kind of technique is going to be an encroachment of sorts. Otherwise we could all just do what comes naturally and we would all be Awesome at whatever we wanted to do. It doesn’t work that way. Freedom lies on the other side of technique, as a wise person once said.
Writing has its benefits for the initial phase of the Who-am-I process, and it is also enormously valuable for the personalization process that follows. Personalization has two components: particularization, in which the people, places and things that comprise the world of the Who-am-I are given detail which imbues them with an enlivening vividness, and investment, in which the actor uses relationships in her own life to endow these people places and things with the appropriate kind of signficance. Writing can be invaluable for both particularization and transference. In addition to the production effect, writing down pieces of particularization and investment force a ocmmitment to be made: if such things remain as mere thoughts, they are likely to remain undeveloped and incherent. Writing out these things asks the actor to bring an urgently needed definition to her imaginative approach to the role.
Uta Hagen is a tremendous resource in this regard: in both her books, she provides countless examples of the kind of writing on the role that provides this kind of enrichment to the actors work.
Of course, what you write when you write is also important. Just the mere fact of writing does not guarantee that the Who-Am-I will be productively developed and rich personalization will take shape. But writing it down is a step in the right direction, a gesture of seriousness to your creative self about your intentions. It beats not writing anything out every time.