Get thee to a theatre

Our son, an actor who plans on majoring in drama at university, sent me this article on How Do Actors memorize their Lines? Anyone interested in how our brains and bodies function together should read this article. Michael Boyd and Oliver Sacks discuss some very interesting case studies about memory:

[Oliver Sacks] “What strikes me is the thousands and thousands of lines on the one hand, and roles on the other. These lines would have no coherence, would make no sense, would not hold together without a role, and especially a role in relation to other roles. The ability to enter a role can again outlast the hippocampi. It can outlast all sorts of mental abilities.”

The type of mental/physical coordination and development that acting enables makes me think that performance arts should have a more prominent role in our education system. We are missing opportunities for integration of drama and the opportunity for students to get a better understanding of themselves. Why is theatre an elective while English writing is compulsory? Can’t you learn English through acting?

Another form of acting is improvisation, where each actor must listen to the others and play off their actions. What a great way to teach listening and empathy! Improv is also a life skill and a good business skill as Brand Autopsy writes in Learning through Improv. Here are some lessons from improv:

  • Failure is an Option
  • Practice Passionate Followership
  • Don’t Act, React
  • Go with your Gut
  • Don’t be a Blockhead
  • Trust Others
  • Make Others Look Good

I never did much acting in school, but I am really seeing the value of it as I watch our son juggling three plays plus his school work.

7 Responses to “Get thee to a theatre”

  1. Karyn Romeis

    Having started my career on the stage, this is an issue I can relate to! I used to hate when I had just acted my heart out on stage and some well-meaning person would look at me with wide-eyed admiration and simper “How ever do you remember all those lines?”

    I didn’t know how I remembered “all those lines”. As your article indicates – it was about the role, not the lines. If a play is well written, the lines are fairly intuitive. I could usually be relied upon to know my own lines as well as everybody else’s by about halfway into the rehearsal period.

    I once acted in a murder mystery playing a character who made a long speech in which she said pretty much the same thing three times over… only slightly differently each time. It was a terrible speech. Really amateurishly written and it was a pain to learn.

    I had no such trouble with Second witch in Macbeth, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof, or Aunt Eller in Oklahoma. I did several David Woods children’s musicals and they were a breeze.

    That said, I often used to appear with an actor who was notoriously bad at learning lines. Which meant you had to really be on your toes to field all the curved balls he pitched during the course of a single performance. He had a habit of muddling through his own rough approximation of what the character had to say at each point. Since he was Welsh, this meant that each character suddenly acquired a Welsh turn of phrase. Let me tell you – until you have seen a version of the dream scene in Fiddler on the Roof in which Tevye declares in a strong Welsh accent that the ghost “was stood right by thur”, you haven’t lived!

  2. Gilbert

    If people write articles like “How do actors memorize their lines” and say things that should be obvious and then things that are ridiculours….

    Maybe we should teach Memory instead of acting.

    Then acting would just be an exercise in a memory class…

    Or maybe acting could be an exercise in an improvisation class.

    We teach all kinds of things in schools but we don’t teach the important things like breathing, walking, sleeping,..memory, thinking, balance,vigilance…

    Yes.. we have swimming lessons, dancing lessons, but we don’t have walking lessons. If you think we don’t need walking lessons take time to watch people as they walk and it won’t be long you will change your mind. If you live near a high school watch the teenagers drag their feet as if they were lost in the desert…

    Acting… maybe but what are we really trying to achieve.

  3. Harold Jarche

    I figured you might weigh in the theme of memory, Gilbert. The major point I’m trying to make is that acting seems like a better vehicle for developing some of these skills than traditional subjects have been. Curriculum content is just grist for the cognitive mill, but acting is a process that can be used in many disciplines.

  4. Gilbert

    One thing for sure if it is important enough to be taught I wouldn’t put it acting in the school system. The school system is too antiquated to be effective.

    We teach music in schools and it doesn’t seem to work very well. So teaching acting in school might be a great way to create lousy actors.

    I think the time has really come to completely move a lot of the learning to outside the school system. We already depend too much on schools. We need to invent new mechanisms for learning.

    I see a lot of learning happening in churches and acting and music seem to fit well with some churches objectives. I have seen some pretty good musicians and actors develop their skills there.

    Old machines like the school system will just not cut it. So my idea is that if acting is good for the kids, why ruin it by putting it in schools.

    I know that it is hard at first to see what other mechanisms to use. So here is an idea.. lets depend less on schools.. cut down the school day by half.. redirect learning related funding towards organizations that care… and …

    And while we’re at it we might as well replace half the teachers in schools by people who know real stuff and are motivated… I teach kids about the dangers of schooling the same way we teach them about the dangers of TV…

    Wow.. I just had a vision of an old gym teacher with a broken leg trying to teach acting classes. I think that is what we had for my grade 8 mathematics class. If it works for math .. should work for acting.. everyone ended hating math…and with a reason.


  5. Jon Husband

    “Roles” are IMO a good thing for the workplace of the future, as well (as opposed to jobs).

    The concept offers much more flexibility, as well as an invitation (nuanced) to keep learning and growing, as well as augmented flexibility for moving (sideways, up or down) into other useful or attractive “roles”.


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