Human memory is a seemingly endless resource – we add to it daily over a lifetime – but it has to be one of the more fallible bits of human biology; we can’t always remember our PIN at the checkout but the brain will surrender the lyrics to Britney Spears’ entire back catalogue without much prodding. Given that occasional weakness, it’s remarkable that some people – actors in particular – can make a career out of a bulletproof memory.
But how do the likes of Hugh Jackman and Emma Watson manage to remember the dialogue for entire films or Broadway plays? While each person is unique in their approach – Chicago theatre actor Blake Russell writes down mnemonics, reducing lines to just the first letter of each sentence – all performers have a few tricks in common, and the traditional image of the actor poring over lines for months on end may not be entirely accurate.
Helga Noice, a psychology professor based in Illinois, suggests that actors search for motivations and intentions in the script to understand why their character would use particular words or do particular things. Memorization is almost a side effect of that quest for understanding. Noice adds that lines are usually linked to set pieces and movements on the stage to aid recall; a line like “Alas, poor Yorick!” is much easier to remember when the actor is holding a skull.
The concept of the “memory palace” – somewhere a person knows well and can visualize in their mind – is significant in acting as well. To give an example: in games that reward the memorization of particular card hands, like poker, the player could imagine each card in a certain location in their memory palace – an ace of hearts on a window sill, an eight of clubs marking a book page, a queen of spades on a doormat, and so forth.
Poker and acting aren’t all that different – the importance of a good memory aside, many players maintain a façade or poker “face” to trick opponents – and 888poker has an entire series of articles dedicated to mastering that bluff. Learning what different gestures and facial expressions reveal to an audience (a cheerful face is a trustworthy one even on the sneakiest player) is a key part of becoming a poker pro.
Actors are also fond of sleeping. While falling asleep on the script might seem like a theatre faux pas, research indicates that sleep helps new memories form by reducing the number of factors that undermine the process during the waking hours, things like screaming babies, phone calls, and hungry cats. The brain is also better equipped to order memories by their importance when the rest of the body is resting.
Gwendolyn Whiteside (Dawson’s Creek, Six Feet Under) also swears by walking: “I have no idea why this works but […] somehow it speeds the brain up.”
Finally, along with our ability to shake off hangovers, our memory declines with age, so one of the most important tools in an actor’s kit is time. Ann Whitney, an actor of “unlisted” age, told the Chicago Tribune that the time it takes her to learn lines has increased from two weeks to five months. It’s still a remarkable skill in the eyes of anybody who struggles to remember all three items on their shopping list.