What Actors Can Teach Us About Science and Learning

By SA2020 | Mar 22 2013

by Annie Murphy Paul for Time Ideas

 

So you say you have a wedding toast to memorize? A 20-min. speech you have to know by heart? A list of people’s names you absolutely must remember?

Pshaw. Imagine delivering the long soliloquies of Shakespeare or the impassioned speeches of Arthur Miller or the cut-glass dialogue of David Mamet. When it comes to memorization, professional actors can claim bragging rights. They must reproduce their scripts exactly — no improvising allowed — night after night, under blinding lights, in front of a demanding audience. How do they do it? Helga Noice, a professor of psychology at Elmhurst College in Illinois, has spent more than 20 years investigating that question, and her findings hold lessons for all of us who must sometimes commit words to memory.

Noice’s first and most surprising discovery is that most actors don’t memorize their lines in the traditional sense at all. Rather, they begin by reading the script over and over again, looking for what they call the “throughline” — the causal chain that leads one event in the play to topple into the next and the next. “Almost every line of the script is mined for clues as to the characters, situations, or relationships,” Noice writes, commenting on the method practiced by the actors she interviewed.

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