Study Shows How Actors Make Memorizing Lines Look Easy: Themes, Motivation and Blocking

You’ve heard all the jokes about acting — like how it’s just another word for being a waiter or waitress — but it seems like the one thing people just happen to ignore when they’re making fun of actors is memorization.  After all, most of us have so much trouble remembering phone numbers that we are endlessly thankful for cell phones saving contacts. 

But that’s nothing for an actor — imagine having to memorize all of the words to portray Hamlet, who has 1569 spoken lines? 

For most people it would seem impossible, but we actors have been doing it for hundreds of years.  On top of that, actors have the added pressure of reciting the lines in front of audiences that expect perfection.  Though common to actors, this nonetheless phenomenal display of the memory’s capabilities has been studied by Helga Noice, a professor of psychology at Elmhurst College in Illinois, for over twenty years.  She spoke about her discoveries with Time Magazine.

Noice explains that actors don’t memorize a play like one would directly memorize facts for an upcoming biology test.  Actors look for themes in the dialogue to help them find their characters’ motivation, as Noice points out, “Almost every line of the script is mined for clues as to the characters, situations, or relationships.”  When studying the way actors learn their lines, Noice discovered it was a much deeper mental process, explaining, “At no time did the actors attempt to memorize the words directly, but rather tried to discern why the character would use those particular words to express that particular thought.”

Certainly rehearsals help memorization, but not just in the obvious way of repeating lines over and over again.  Actors also connect lines with specific movements.  Noice reveals, “Cast members’ movements are carefully blocked out during rehearsal, and so their lines are always matched to the same physical motions, forming a kind of bodily mneumonic device.” 
 
In fact, Noice has found that when an actor is no longer starring in a role on a regular basis he or she has a much easier time recalling lines that were connected to movements on stage than lines that were not (which might explain why one of Hamlet’s most famous and familiar lines — “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio” — prominently features a prop). 
 
Another factor that helps memorization is the emotion that actors attach to the lines.  It’s much more difficult to memorize when you repeat the material in a bored, disinterested manner (as hundreds of years of schoolchildren can tell you).  Associating the lines with strong feelings gives those lines more significance and helps an actor recall his or her lines when those emotions are experienced again. 
 
Luckily all three techniques have been used by actors for years to help them memorize their lines.  Perhaps it’s about time for the rest of us to finally give these methods a shot — I’ll do anything to help me not forget my mother’s birthday!

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