How do actors learn their lines? It’s not the same act of memorizing that we perform as students when we commit to memory the steps of photosynthesis for a biology midterm. Actors learn lines to repeat them over and over in performance after performance, and yet must do so as if they have never spoken them before, to create “the illusion of the first time” (Stanislavsky qtd. in Strasberg 35). Earlier this semester, I managed to learn lines for a play and repeat them in six performances, but I still don’t know how I did it. In fact, it was only after the play closed that I could bring myself to count the words. I was curious to know how many I’d memorized, but if I had counted them before I’d learned them, the process of memorizing would have been too daunting. And counting them during the run of the play could have undermined my performance; dwelling on how many words I was keeping in my head might have made me more prone to forget.
So how did I learn those 1,567 words and remember them?
My fascination with learning lines—and admittedly, my anxiety about the possibility of forgetting—led me to research the process. I found that teachers of acting tend to downplay memorizing lines. In fact, the most influential acting teachers of the twentieth century spoke rarely on the subject in their lectures. Though it’s essential to the craft—actors can’t read from their scripts or call “line, please” in performance, after all—it isn’t a focus of instruction. Still, it’s a process worthy of our attention because of what it may reveal about memory and how line-learning may benefit our cognitive health.
Acting teacher Stella Adler instructed her students (among them, Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro) not to memorize their lines, but instead to build a relationship with the words. In her first lecture to her students in The Art of Acting (“First Steps on Stage”), she tells them to read The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, and select one idea from it to paraphrase and perform on stage (25). Later, when she returns to that exercise in her fourteenth lecture (“Understanding the Text”), she refers to the process as something “we must do with every text” (162). According to Adler:
Paraphrasing allows the ideas to become part of you. By putting the text into your own words you build a relationship. It becomes part of your heart as well as your head, which is essential before you can communicate the words to an audience. If the ideas are clear to you, they will be clear to them. (162)
Notably, the texts that Adler asked her students to paraphrase aren’t scenes. Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet isn’t a play but a collection of prose-poem essays. By choosing lines that her students would never perform in a play, Adler emphasized to them the importance of understanding the words on the page rather than the act of rote memorization.
Like Adler, Lee Strasberg instructed his students (including James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Paul Newman) to study texts that they wouldn’t perform. But rather than assigning them the prose-poems of The Prophet, as Adler did, Strasberg required his students to read short stories, among them Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Strasberg chose short stories over scenes because the conversations are often more realistic than the dialogue of plays, which, as Strasberg remarked, include “elements that characters would never say but convey necessary information to the audience” (161). Strasberg also found short stories useful teaching tools because “the short-story material forces the actor to really find out what he is talking about, not just what he is saying, and to find out how that relates to what the scene is all about” (161).
The same emphasis Adler and Strasberg placed on understanding rather than memorizing is apparent in the teaching of their contemporary Sanford Meisner (whose students include Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, and Sydney Pollack). In the documentary Sanford Meisner: The American Theater’s Best Kept Secret, Pollack discusses how Meisner downplayed the role of dialogue:
What Sandy did is begin to examine the fact that dialogue is the last thing that happens, at any time, between two people. It’s all supported by behavior and attitudes. You say something. You mean a certain thing to me when I see you because of whatever relationship we may have. You say something. I hear it. Depending on the state I’m in when I came into the room, it means something to me. It produces a reaction in me emotionally, and the last thing that happens is that I respond with dialogue.
Similar to Meisner’s notion of dialogue as the “last thing that happens [. . .] between to people,” is the belief of Uta Hagen’s (teacher of Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino) that learning lines is a “by-product of the work” (117). Instead of coaching her students to focus on memorization, she instructed them to make every element of the play real to them, “every person, thing, event, and landscape, even the weather” (117). Hagen asserted that creating those particulars will lead the actor to the lines:
As you make your particularizations, much of what you have to say will become inevitable, and, when followed up in rehearsals by the discovery of your verbal intents and expectations, the words will be further validated until ‘learning the lines’ has become a by-product of the work, replacing the outmoded method of mechanical memorization. (117)
I didn’t know that I was following Hagen’s instruction when I asked a hair stylist to cut off seven-eighths of my hair or when I asked a seamstress if she could help me solve a head-scarf problem. My instinct simply told me that I needed to make my character, Nancy Gordon, as real as possible. That meant figuring out how to keep scarves on my head in the fall and winter of Act One, when she’s hiding her hair loss from chemotherapy, and cutting my hair for her appearance in the spring of Act Two, when her hair has started to grow back.
In the first weeks of rehearsal, I simply tied my Act-One scarves over my hair, which I was then wearing in a ponytail (I hadn’t cut it yet), and they repeatedly came undone and fell off on stage. Can you sew these so they appear to be simply tied? I asked a seamstress. They keep falling off on stage, and I need to make sure that doesn’t happen. More importantly, I realized that I needed not to worry about the scarves. Doing so would take me out of the scene. On stage, I had to be Nancy, not myself, wondering if my scarf was about to slip and fall.
The seamstress said yes. She could sew the scarves’ knots for me. But if I do it now, she added, the scarves will be too loose after you cut your hair. So I went back to see her after I cut my hair. I tied on each scarf as tightly as possible, and she sewed the knots. Wearing them with their knots sewn and with double-sided tape securing them at my temples solved the problem.
That head-scarf problem and the seamstress’ solution are details I offer not as digression but as an example of the “particularizations” that Hagen instructs her students to make. With a scarf secured tightly—fused to my head, it seemed—I was Nancy Gordon in a way that I hadn’t been before. She was more real. But I still don’t understand how a particular such as a scarf or a haircut makes “much of what you have to say [. . .] inevitable” (Hagen 117). Still, I know that it was part of the process that transformed me into the character who spoke the words I spoke.
But why should anyone who isn’t an actor care about this? you may ask. Simply put, the answer is cognitive health. Though we aren’t all actors, we all experience diminished memory as we grow older, and cognitive research that explores the memorization process specific to acting indicates that it may improve our memory and other cognitive functions. The research team of Helga and Tony Noice—she a cognitive psychologist and he a director and actor—have studied acting and its cognitive effects for more than twenty years. In “What Studies of Actors and Acting Can Tell Us about Memory and Cognitive Functioning,” the Noices address the process of learning lines—specifically memorizing large amounts of dialogue in a short period of time—and how actors reproduce those lines verbatim with spontaneity. Applying that process to other activities, including learning techniques for undergraduates and memory improvement in older adults, they conclude that the essence of acting—what the Noices term active experiencing or AE—may enhance memory (17).
The Noices’ recent studies of older adults who took part in four-week acting classes found marked improvements not only in memory but also “comprehension, creativity and other cognitive skills”:
Subjects showed a 19 percent increase in immediate word recall (a test of memory), a 37 percent increase in delayed story recall (a comprehension test) and a 12 percent increase in word fluency (a measure of creativity). (Noice and Noice ctd. in Hanc)
So should we enroll in acting classes to improve our cognitive skills? The Noices findings certainly make a case for it, especially when you consider that the acting classroom may be one of the last places where students are required to commit words to memory. In the information age, it’s far more important to develop our critical thinking skills. We don’t need to memorize what’s available at our fingertips, but we need to be able to distinguish the credible information from the dreck. And if the act of memorizing really does improve our cognitive health, perhaps we should look to the stage as a place to do it. I hope to return there, myself. But if I do, don’t ask me how many lines I have to learn. I won’t count them until the play closes.
Adler, Stella. The Art of Acting. Ed. Howard Kissel. New York: Applause, 2000. Print.
Hagen, Uta. A Challenge for the Actor. New York: Scribner’s, 1991. Print.
Hanc, John. “Elderly Acting Might Just Improve . . . Line, Please!” NYTimes.com. The New York Times, 9 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.
Noice, Helga, and Tony Noice. “What Studies of Actors and Acting Can Tell Us about Memory and Cognitive Functioning.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 15.1 (2006):14-18. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.
Sanford Meisner: The American Theater’s Best Kept Secret. Dir. Nick Doob. Perf. Robert Duvall, Joanne Woodward. YouTube.com. YouTube, 18 Nov. 2006. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.
Strasberg, Lee. A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method. Ed. Evangeline Morphos. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987. Print.