I've mentioned recently that I was playing a part in the play Hamp, put on by Stageworks in Dunedin at the Playhouse.
With this play, and the one I did last year - The Sunshine Boys - I found something curious had happened to my learning of lines. In previous plays I've had to work endlessly hard to retain the lines, and even then not felt very secure. But with these two plays, once the lines have been learned, they're secure, and only a distraction (such as happened one night during Hamp) puts me off saying the right thing in the right place.
This is curious, because by rights, you'd think, being now at an exalted age, it ought to be harder for me to learn lines. And I'm not aware that I've changed my approach to learning them, except in one respect: I work through them one at a time until I can do a page or so of them from memory. Then I read the cue from the other actor, (either out loud or in my head) and (with my line covered up) recite my own line.
I learned the lines for Sunshine Boys very quickly with this 'method' last year, and the lines for Hamp came pretty quickly too, although, as always, there were one or two that remained sticky until late in the proceedings. But I didn't feel perturbed about that. I knew they'd come.
So maybe it's just a gain in confidence. Seems unlikely; I've been reasonably confident on stage these last ten years or so.
I do insist on one thing: that the lines are learned as they're written. If this isn't done, it's too easy to veer off course. You'd think that all actors (amateur actors, I'm talking about here) would learn the lines that the author gives them, but some don't. They have a tendency to partly learn them, and then, of course, they find themselves in trouble on stage, and have to paraphrase. The mind has the extraordinary ability to paraphrase, to substitute words with similar meanings, if we get into any trouble. But I prefer not to rely on that, and it's not ideal. It can be off-putting for other actors waiting on a particular cue.
Anyway, that's one aspect of memorisation. The other is that the only other thing I've really memorised over the last year or so is Psalm 119, that great hulk of a work with 176 verses, and a huge amount of similar lines. With this Psalm I had to use all the techniques I could think of to hold it together in my head. I got it to the point where I could recite it through, last year, left it alone for a while, and have been revising it this year, reinforcing things, and checking that I'm actually saying the right words in the right places.
The interesting thing is that even though I'd left it alone for a few months, the basic structural approach I'd taken to learning it survived, and kept the piece mostly in my head. Some details had wandered, and had to be pulled back into line, but having done that, the thing is once again on a secure footing. Furthermore, I'm now able to get past the techniques and listen to the words themselves, something that was quite hard to do when I was learning it.
A few days ago I wrote myself a note: now is not the time to give up memorising. I've memorised Scripture and poetry for years, mostly during the half hour walk I took to work in the mornings. But I haven't revised a lot of that material for some time, and the other day I felt it was time to put the revision work in and get some of those things back into my system.
I started with Hebrews chapter 12, something I learned many years ago. To my surprise, it was basically still intact, once I'd run through it a few times; the lines that had seemed hard to get under my belt all those years ago came back without too much effort, and already I'm feeling as though it's well within my grasp again.
The joy of memorising things is that you really get to know them. We can read something over and over and still find that we skim bits, or ignore some things. Once you start to memorise, you have to learn every word, and learn it right. This does something very good for the soul...