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Careers Clinic: How can I improve my memory?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I have had a varied career that started on the stage, moved into television and film for a decade or two, and now seems to be back to theatre again, having been replaced by younger and more photogenic leads on screen. I’m not complaining (much) as I have always preferred the stage and have had the chance to work on some excellent touring productions recently.

My ‘as seen on TV’ status means I am normally first or second lead, which although flattering means I am on stage a lot, with a substantial amount of lines to learn. I used to be ‘Mr First Off Book’ in my soap days, but it now takes a lot longer for me to get the lines locked in. Last week I had to take a prompt for the first time in ages.

I’m not, by any means ready to hang up my acting boots yet, but do you have any suggestions to make sure my memory doesn’t exit stage left before I am ready to?

John Byrne’s advice

According to the NHS, the Mayo clinic, and other organisations which study cognitive health, memory power can start to diminish from as early as middle age. Inconvenient as this can be, it’s part of the natural ageing process and usually no cause for alarm. If you are starting to forget more familiar things on a regular basis, such as names of close family members or phone and pin numbers you use day to day, that is slightly different and probably worth a visit to the GP.

Sadly, nobody seems to have got around to inventing a magic, line-learning pill, although I know many actors, young and old, who would be first in the queue if it was available. In a physical profession, one of the challenges we face as we get older is that things we could once do easily become less so as time progresses. With our heads often clogged up with concerns about where the next casting is coming from, never mind learning the lines once we get it, we can sometimes forget the physical nature of acting.

We can learn some useful lessons from two of the more obviously physical performing arts: singing and dance. Listen to any great singer across their career and in almost every case, comparing earlier and later recordings will demonstrate that notes they could once hit with ease are less easy now. Great singers usually compensate for this by adapting arrangements, not only to accommodate a different vocal range, but also to make the most of a wealth of performing and life experience that will have added layers to their ability to interpret lyrics, and compensate for any lack of vocal gymnastics. As dancers age, smart choreography is the key to playing up strengths rather than highlight deficits.

Rather than framing your current problem as “I’m getting too old to remember lines”, a better suggestion might be to define it as “my usual technique for memorising lines isn’t working as well as before, so it’s time to explore new ones’’.

This can range from trying out some of the line-learning technologies that are now available – such as The Stage’s own Lines2Memory app – or using your smartphone to record a full scene, leaving gaps for your own lines so you can then practise when playing back.

Different methods work for different people, and sometimes you will need to fuse several together to find what works for you. Whatever else you try, don’t be shy about asking for sides and scripts as far in advance as you can get them to give you time for your own memory experiments.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

John Byrne is also a writer, cartoonist, performer and broadcaster. Read his advice columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/john-byrne

The Green Room: How do you learn your lines?

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