TRICKS OF MEMORY
John Lienhard presents
guest essayist Megan Cole
Today, our guest, Seattle actor Megan Cole, talks
about memory and meaning. The University of Houston
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
One of the questions that
actors are often asked is, "How do you remember all
those lines?" We all have our little ways. Some
actors I know never seem to learn their lines at
all, getting by on sheer charm and the kindness of
fellow thespians who fill in the dead air. And
prompters went out a long time ago.
Well, the technique that I have found the most
helpful is this: Instead of memorizing words as
separate entities, I try to memorize the underlying
thoughts that make the words inevitable. This seems
obvious, I guess, but you'd be amazed at the number
of actors who say, in the middle of rehearsal, the
equivalent of, "To be or ... hmmm ... line?" I
know, because I've done this myself. And not only
is it humiliating, but it also shows me I don't
really know what I'm saying. That's a good thing to
It helps, too, to populate one's head with pictures
of the things you're talking about, just as we do
in what's commonly called "real life." And many of
us find it easier to remember words when we can
match the words to space or movement. It's a
kinetic thing. So when you're, say, reaching up to
stroke your leading man's lantern jaw, you're less
likely to blurt out, "A horse, a horse, my kingdom
for a horse." Such things do happen, of course, but
only in French absurdist plays. In the main, it's a
good idea to, as the man said, suit the gesture to
Here's another trick: When you need to memorize a
list of words, it's helpful to learn the first
letters of those words, so that the recall of the
letters provokes the memory of the entire words.
Here's what I mean: If for some reason you have to
say, "Oh, those pretty, vain, unobtainable vixens,"
you might memorize "P-V-U-V." Pretty. Vain.
Unobtainable. Vixens. Simple! Of course, you
might then come out with something like "peppy,
vicious, uxorious vegetation" -- but that only
means you haven't been listening and have neglected
to identify the underlying thought.
Finally, when I have a series of numbers to
remember, I sometimes figure out where those
numbers fall on the musical scale and then remember
the tune they create. Thus: (sing)
"1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9" -- and zero can be any sound
that appeals at the time. Let's take a telephone
number. My friend Jean's number, for example, is
323-7365: (sing) "323-7365." Not a bad little tune.
Which can then nicely morph into something more
melodious: (sing) "3237-365 ... ta-da-ta-da
ta-de-dum" This technique has the added advantage
of making you seem to onlookers like a happy
person. A little odd, but happy.
Whatever memorization techniques you use, though,
the main thing is to know the underlying thought --
so that the outer is a reliable reflection
of the inner. And isn't it funny how a
simple little memory technique can turn out to be a
simple little metaphor for life?
I'm Megan Cole, and in the theatre we give a great
deal of attention to the way inventive minds work.
Megan Cole is a noted stage and TV actor and regular
visiting faculty member at the University of Texas
Medical Center in Houston. She originated the role of
Dr. Vivian Bearing in the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play
Wit. She has also played recurring
characters on Seinfeld, ER,
Star Trek, and other popular shows.
For more on memorization and memory see Episodes
1226, 909, and 892.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.