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'Moonwalking with Einstein': On Acting and the Art of Memorization

When one finds themselves coming to acting at any age one of the first obstacles they encounter is memorization. As time and experience on-stage or in front of the camera continues it becomes less and less of a dread and simply an accepted part of a longer, expansive process. That is unless one is taking on 'Hamlet' or texts of equal breadth and then the "How am I going to remember all this?" fears start to creep back into the mind.

Like all acting techniques there are varied roads to gaining the confidence to not fear your cues or be caught remembering when you should be doing. Some, like Anthony Hopkins, use immense repetition of reading the text. He claims to read the script 30 times before even starting. Marlon Brando famously found the entire process a distraction and would simply have an assistant off-camera reading his lines into a hidden ear-piece.

Or, notoriously, would hide stitches of the script on set or even attached to other the actors (see image). Whether that was laziness or an inspired statement on how the words come to us is open to debate. What is important are our relationships to how those words enter our brains and our interaction with them.

In 2005, Joshua Foer was on assignment for Slate magazine to observe the U.S. Memory Championship. Expecting to encounter a hall of savants he instead encountered a rag-tag group of misfits who could in mere minutes remember the order of shuffled stacks of playing cards, epic poems and numerical sequences. Were these the chosen few with photographic memory? Were these superpowers endowed from birth or was there some form of magic trick being pulled off?

Turns out (spoiler alert) memory is a skill. In fact, so much so that after close observation of its champions he trained intensely using their techniques and won the U.S. Championship a year later. His book, 'Moonwalking with Einstein' is his journey from a man who couldn't remember his keys to taking down the best in the country.

The essence of the two techniques illuminated in the book are the PAO system and a concept called 'the memory palace'.

PAO, which stands for 'Person-Action-Object' (which sounds quite close to Goal-Action-Obstacle, doesn't it, actors?) is a technique for remembering long sequences. The concept is rooted in the observation that the human brain has an innate relationship to remembering faces as part of our survival. Therefore, one mentally 'attaches' an image to something they want to remember like say, 'Einstein' to a number. Then to further make it specific has that person doing an action, like say 'Moonwalking'. The more absurd the action, apparently, makes it more sticky to the brain. Then finally is attached an object in relationship to the previous two like say 'jelly'. SO, 'Einstein moonwalking in jelly' is your sticky thought and it represents the number you are trying to remember.

Sounds exhaustive, doesn't it?

But if done in clusters for short speeches one could create a gallery of images. They would become mental road signs to shorter sequences of an epic monologue. Which brings us to the 'memory palace'.

The 'memory palace' (or 'method of the loci') evolved from the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos in 5th century BC. After attending a banquet at a temple he stepped out and an earthquake shuddered the building down on the important guests. The only survivor, Simonides traced his steps back through the hall and was able to remember each individual from where they were seated. This triggered an entire system he would develop based upon placing specific memories in an imagined location or 'palace'.

While this system has evolved the basic concept is the same. That the human brain is hard-wired to remember spaces and paths as part of its survival. Ancient man evolved his memory based on terrain so that he could find his way home. So, far simpler than PAO, the memory temple is a location, perhaps the walk to your front door or your apartment, etc where you place images (like your PAO ones) you want to remember.

So, for the actor, our first speech (or line) could be placed at the door, the next in the atrium, then next in the living room and so on and so on. Eventually an entire text could be placed along these routes. Act I is in your apartment, Act II in your parents house, Act III in your gym. These techniques were actively employed for epic speeches and orators of the likes of Cicero and more through the ages. Yet, for the actor, it presents some telling discoveries.

1) That space is a powerful tool in remembering. That any actor, or director, should be sensitive to when blocking is decided. If we know that our brains will wire our memory to a location then we should assume that actors will get attached to blocking

sequences and the lines in the script. Ever rehearse a play and feel confident you were off-book and then the movements changed and found yourself suddenly lost? This understanding can help us by purposefully using that knowledge to use the set as a sequence or set us free from the blocking by not getting locked into memorizing on the set or 'palace'.

2) That faces and the juxtaposition of absurd images help the brain lock away certain memories. Many techniques from Stansilavsky's System and on employ 'sense memory' in the use of emotional recall. Here the notion that very specific images also help us to remember is invaluable. Now, as part of our work in creating an inner life of the character we can add the use of these potent images as talismans to remembering long sequences.

The actor need be mindful, though, on which images they are marrying to the text as having a 'ballerina farting on my couch' might not be what you want to be thinking about when contemplating that bloody dagger before you. Or maybe not...I'd watch that.

One thing was certain from reading Foer's immensely enjoyable book and that is there is no 'trick' to avoid doing the work. While these techniques, which are over-simplified here, are eye-opening and telling to our process they aren't a gimmick. That your mind and heart are muscles and the more we use and build them the stronger an actor you become. These techniques are simply more pieces of machinery in your gym or 'palace'.

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