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Paul Clayton: How do actors commit lines to memory?

A kinaesthetic learner prefers to learn with gestures or movements. Photo: Aaron Amat A kinaesthetic learner prefers to learn with gestures or movements. Photo: Aaron Amat
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What is the quintessential question about acting that is most often asked by laymen? How do you divide the character’s persona from your own inner psyche? What are the key pieces of physical transformation involved in any characterisation that you work on? How do you manage to look so young and gorgeous? No. The enquiry on the tip of everyone’s tongue is: “How do you learn your lines?”

It is probably the question that is hardest to reply to. For actors, learning the script is such an inherent part of our everyday life, that we rarely think about how we do it. Methods are many. Talk to four different actors, and you’ll get four different replies.

We’d like to be able to say that it’s hard work, but certainly throughout my 20s, I never found it so. An afternoon’s rehearsal of a script, followed by an hour or so looking through the lines I had just rehearsed. An evening visit to the pub, and then a quick perusal of the script before my head hit the pillow. Next morning the lines would be miraculously filed away ready for use.

I’m now well aware that that probably won’t always be the case. While at drama school, I remember being shocked seeing a play in Manchester where one leading actor of advancing years had lines fed to him throughout the performance via a radio earpiece. Not really very good for him, nor indeed for the audience at one matinee performance when his trans- mission frequency was interrupted by a minicab firm.

Yet that moment when the ability to retain the information that is so key to our work is lost quite possibly looms ahead for all of us. The basic rules of acting, as defined by Noel Coward are: “Learn the lines and don’t bump into the furniture.” These days furniture can be a luxury for underfunded theatres, so that’s one problem solved. But just how do we achieve that feat of memory.

Approaching 60, I find it increasingly hard to learn lines quickly. And yet I do it. For a casting, it can be overnight. A recent stint on a soap meant whole scenes had to be learnt every day. As saddening as it is to think that Michael Gambon is going to do much less work due to his own self-confessed inability to retain the text, at least he has recognised the problem. So just how do we do it, and how do we stay on top of it?

The first part of the solution is to work out exactly what sort of learner you are. Take one of the many online tests available. If you’re an auditory learner, you will prefer to hear or talk through information in order to remember it. You may benefit from recording what you need to say and listening to it. Try ‘Line Learner’, which at £2.49 is a great buy for iPhone or Android. You record the lines and the app plays back the lines with suitable pauses. It also has a brilliant prompt facility.

Visual learners prefer to read, so the simple act of writing lines down may well be your best route. Treat yourself to a big new notepad and speak them as you write.

Kinaesthetic learners prefer to learn by ‘doing’. For you it’s best to tie them in with movements. Gestures, or simple movements in the space where you learn lines will all help things stick more easily.

Memory is a muscle, and like all muscles it needs to be exercised regularly. That’s why soap actors who have to learn lines every night probably find it easier than most.

I spoke to Mark Channon, actor, author of How to Remember Anything – a Teach Yourself guide, and creator of Monkhouse’s Memory Masters, where members of the public were taught how to remember things quickly. I asked him how I could keep my memory active and working.

His top tips were daily memory exercise, managing stress, a good night’s sleep and having learning goals. One exercise is to practise creative memorisation – memorise 10 simple objects or words. You do this by bringing each object to life as if it were right there in front of you and connecting it to the next object and so on – spend no longer than a minute to memorise (start with three and build up).

This is an exercise that can occupy downtimes and be part of how you progress as an actor even when no one is employing you. It should be on all our lists of things to do when we are ‘resting’.

I suppose the answer to that curious member of the public wanting to know how we do it is: “I don’t really know”, but hopefully this will help you work out which techniques make it just a little easier. Now, where did I put those reading glasses?

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