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The psychology behind why you MUST learn your lines

Learning lines is one of the less-than-inspiring parts of being an actor. Its time consuming, challenging and very often monotonously boring. Nevertheless it is a vital part of the end product and without it...well, you're likely to be out of a job. Strangely there seem to be varying opinions on how soon you should know your lines before starting rehearsals and how well. One director may prefer you not to know your lines before coming to rehearsals, or one actor may refuse to know them until the night of the dress rehearsal, leaving his or her co-stars in a state of terror as to whether they might have to leapfrog around the script in order to keep the show going with their less-than-learnéd partner. Other actors arrive on day one with the entire script memorised. This may intimidate other actors who have not done the work, and depending on the actor, the director may struggle against an actor stuck in a particular intonation and set rhythm of saying the lines. As a result there seems to be this awkward grey area as to which actor to be. Psychology will tell you; be actor 2. From a psychological perspective actor 2 is in a far better position to give a stelar performance and an ultimately better quality of work. Why? Well.

What is it that we are doing when we are acting? Imagine, you come out on stage on cue, there is the set, your fellow actor, the black hole which is the audience, the bright lights. Your fellow actor looks at you and delivers a string of sounds that form some kind of intelligible speech. And you have to respond. Not only do you have to respond with words that have been predetermined by someone else but you have to make it look like those words came out of your own head and your reaction is totally organic and believable according to all the elements that make up the picture in front of the audience. Two concepts from two masters: firstly, as Stanislavski said, you need to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances, and secondly, as Meisner says, acting is listening and responding. I would argue that in this particular moment there is no cognitive space or time for you to try and do the above two things effectively as well as trying to remember your lines. Here's why.

There are three cognitive systems that you are relying on in the above scenario. First is perception. You enter the scene and you are perceiving a ton of information that is coming at you through all of your senses. The lights, the set, the facial expression of your fellow actor. The sounds of your footsteps, the words from your partner, the vague shuffling in the audience. The heat of the lights and the warmth of your clothes. Perhaps the dryness in your mouth, and your relative position to the furniture, or edge of the stage. Now, the second system is attention. You can't possibly focus on all of the information coming at you so your brain filters it and directs your attention like a flashlight onto the most important things. This will most likely be your fellow actor. What they are saying, and what they are doing. This is giving you the necessary information as to what you need to do. Thirdly, you are going to then be tapping into your memory system which can be divided into two areas: short term and long term memory. Within short term memory is something called working memory. As you are moving through the space your short term memory is storing the information that is important to you and your working memory is retrieving what you need (you just walked past the chair, don't step back or you'll hit it. Ah, he's just asked what I would like to drink). Your long term memory is going to serve you with all the work you've done in rehearsals including your lines. Long term memory can further be divided into two sections: procedural memory and declarative memory. Procedural is responsible for skills and movements that we learn that then become unconscious in the performance of tasks. The act of driving a car for example uses procedural memory. Declarative memory is what we use to retain information like the reams of dates you might have learnt in history class or events such as what happened to you in your childhood. Learning your lines would fit into declarative memory but what we want is for it to be so entrenched within our minds that it forms part of procedural memory. That is, it becomes an unconscious process, recalling the lines as needed and not having to think about it.

Why is it important that our lines become part of procedural memory? The reason is that our attention is limited. It's the reason why you can't text and drive effectively. There is only so much you can focus on in the moment of interacting with your fellow actor on stage and in order to fully listen and respond you need to be watching everything that is happening in front of you and not dividing your attention by thinking back to what you're supposed to say next (where are we in the script??). Therefore, you want to take as little attention away from the moment as possible. Thinking back to the flashlight analogy. If we are fully focused on the other actor we'll be beaming a light on them as strong as a spotlight. If, however, we are also pointing the light within our minds at our internal script, we'll be beaming the light at half strength...almost like a torch that needs two batteries but one isn't working.

Furthermore, if we take the idea that the more difficult the task is, the more attention it requires and the converse; the more adept we are at the task, the less attention it requires, we can make a case for why we want recalling our lines to take the least amount of attention. Consider the difference between getting to work by your normal route and having to take a different route because there's been an accident. In the first case I can imagine you don't even think about where you're going. You're listening to a podcast, thinking about your day, maybe reading a book (if you're using public transport). But if you have to take a new route I would bet you're not doing these things. Instead your attention is laser-focused on navigating the fastest way to get there via unconventional paths so you're not late. You're not listening to a podcast all relaxed and chilled out. Your normal route has an established neural pathway in your brain. Like a path worn in a field that's been walked so often its a clearly defined path. Whereas your new route is totally unfamiliar and is like trudging through the field terrified you're going to fall into a ditch. You haven't built up those neural connections so each time you do the scene its like trudging through the field instead of walking the clear path. BUT. Once trudged enough, it BECOMES a clear path. By having your lines cemented into your memory you free up attention resources to be imaginative in the moment and play in rehearsals because you've established a clear neural pathway in your brain. You free up your ability to notice a slight shift in the energy of the audience and to adjust accordingly to keep them with you. You enable yourself to be fully present with the other actor.

Here's an example from my own experience. When I lived in Spain, I worked as a children's theatre actress performing interactive shows in english touring schools in Madrid and around the country. I had a solo show for children aged 3 to 5 and I worked with a partner on shows for the older kids. We had probably about two weeks (if that) of rehearsals, with an average of two days per show. Then we started performing. The first days of performances were riddled with 'oh, by the way, there's an extra scene here because of this technical aspect' (that was conveniently never mentioned in rehearsals) or being told by the wardrobe girl that the costume for one character didn't exist so we had to combine that character with another. On the day. So it was no surprise when we were suddenly being scheduled to perform shows we had actually never rehearsed, let alone sent a script for. The comparison of my performances in those unrehearsed shows with my solo show (which by that point I had performed so many times I was dreaming about it) made me fully appreciate the benefit of knowing my lines back to front. The nature of children's theatre is that it is fun, playful and comedic. You have to get it just right between being really big but also believable. You have to hit the timing perfectly. Not only that but you're performing in a foreign language to the audience's native language so everything has to be super clear. When I did a show that I had been sent the script of the night before, it was an absolute nightmare. Don't get me wrong, I did the show, we got through it and it was fine but it was not nearly as good as the show I had been doing for the past several months. Why? Because I knew my solo show backwards, which meant I didn't think about it. Instead I was completely tuned in to the audience, watching their reactions and feeding off what they gave me so I could deliver the jokes and the moments exactly when they needed to be. I could be fully present in the imaginary circumstance that I was Goldilocks and I was desperately hungry and sleepy. Whereas in the other shows I was running from mark to mark, mentally checking where we were in the script, that we were hitting all the major plot points and I had no idea how the kids were taking it.

Knowing your lines for acting is like knowing how to use the clutch for driving. Once you can forget about the clutch you begin really driving. When you can forget about having to remember your lines, then you can actually start acting. The luxury of having your lines in advance gives you a huge step up in delivering your best performance or bringing your best self to rehearsals. You will use the least amount of your precious attention resources on recalling and instead use it for perceiving. It means you are more likely to be able to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances and to listen accurately and respond organically.

In the next post, I'll give you some insights into how memory works and what you can do to remember your lines more easily.


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