It seems to be the question that actors hear most frequently: "How did you learn all those lines?"
"You ask that question to any kind of actor and they will laugh," says Susan Anspach, who should know, given her roles in movies such as "Play It Again, Sam," "Blume in Love" and "Montenegro" and her experience as an acting teacher and coach. "Learning the lines is the easiest part of acting."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 22, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Acting -- An article in Monday's Health section said a recent article on acting and memory had been published in the journal Psychological Science. The journal is Current Directions in Psychological Science.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday February 27, 2006 Home Edition Health Part F Page 10 Features Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Acting -- An article in last week's Health section said that a recent article on acting and memory had been published in the journal Psychological Science. The journal is Current Directions in Psychological Science.
And yet, why should it be so easy for actors to memorize vast pages of dialogue and so difficult for most other people to simply remember the name of a dinner partner or the plot of a recently read novel? It couldn't just be, as the old joke about getting to Carnegie Hall goes, practice.
Researchers writing this month in the journal Psychological Science have found the strategies and techniques used by many actors when they tackle a new script are concrete illustrations of some of the abstract theories that psychologists have developed in explaining memory and understanding. The researchers, cognitive psychologist Helga Noice and her husband, actor Tony Noice, have found that the way actors learn lines offers lessons for those of us who sit in the audience worrying about what we forgot.
In the same study, the researchers found that when older people participate in acting classes for four weeks, their cognition and word retrieval capabilities are improved for up to four months. Overall, the work suggests ways to enhance memory -- not just for the task at hand, but in ways that last over time.
"When we saw the strategies that actors used for acquiring a script and so forth, they unwittingly used almost every information-processing device that is known to psychologists," says Tony Noice, who was a professor of theater at Indiana State University when he conducted the research, but has since moved to Elmhurst College. "Because they were meaning what they were saying as they were saying it, their retention of the lines came naturally."
He and his wife, a professor of psychology at Elmhurst, have studied actors and what their approach to memorizing scripts may reveal about memory for almost 20 years. This study builds on their previous work.
In this research, the Noices tried to break down the process that actors generally use when memorizing a script. How did their approach make it easier to remember long and often intricate passages?
They found that actors rarely acquire roles by rote -- by repeating and repeating a word, a phrase, a line, a dialogue -- or at least not as their first step. Instead actors examine the "goal of every utterance of the character," looking at the motivation and the character behind each word of the script. Anspach, who lives in Oakland and continues to teach acting, says that in acting, "First comes who I am, then what do I want, third come my feelings, and finally come the words to get what I want. Once you develop all that, the words will naturally flow."
This process is consistent with early memory research, says Arthur Glenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied memory.
In the past, researchers thought memory was divided into sensory memory -- or the initial brief storage of sensory information -- short-term memory and long-term memory.
But in 1972, two researchers, Fergus Craik and Robert Lockhart, realized this model did not shed light on what makes us able to remember some pieces of information but not others. They concluded that the potency of memory depends largely on the amount of meaning that the memory contains.
"Basically, you can spend a lot of time and effort trying to remember something, but if you haven't focused on the meaning of the message, you won't remember it very well," Glenberg says. "If the focus is more on how something looks or sounds, often memory is not as good as when the focus is on meaning."
As the Noices write in their current article, "When the words have been learned, the actor must mean them each time he or she says them so that every performance is identical and yet unique." They say even though specific words remain the same, the "mental-physical-emotional interactions" between the actors inform how those words are spoken. The gestures, the movements across the stage and the expressions on the other actor's face, all contribute to the ease and accuracy of retaining the lines.
A complete emotional, physical and intellectual immersion in the material may be part of the professional actor's repertoire, but others can benefit as well. As the Noices recently found, the process of imbuing words with meaning can assist the cognitive processes for most people.
In one part of the research, they asked university students to read some material and imagine, in great detail, someone who needed the information they were studying. The students were told not to remember the words, but to concentrate entirely on the meaning of those words.