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Stagecraft: Acting Like an Actor to Improve Your Memory

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: acting like an actor to improve your memory.

RS: Our guest is Tony Noice, an actor, director, teacher and cognitive researcher - someone who studies how we think. He and his psychologist wife Helga have spent years trying to understand how actors remember their lines. They've found that these same skills can also help others.

AA: They've trained older people to improve their recall with theater skills. So, just how do actors memorize their script?

TONY NOICE: "First thing you do is read it and read it again, and read it again, and read it again, because the most important thing to lay the basis for memory is to really understand the meaning, the deep meaning. Then when you do that, you then go back to the beginning and now that you have a knowledge of the essential core meaning -- what we call the spine of the entire piece -- you then start looking at your lines and break them down into what we call intentions or objectives.

"That is, you determine why you are saying everything that you are saying. And by determining that, that already has a lot to do with memory because the lines are not coming out of the blue. It's not material to be memorized. As I often say, actors don't memorize material, they make material memorable."

RS: "So you break the script down into intentions, you really analyze the script."

TONY NOICE: "You analyze the script, saying, 'What am I really trying to get from the other person or do to the other person? What behavior can I see in the other person that will make me know I've achieved my goal at this moment?'"

RS: "It's still a mystery to me how you remember all those lines."

TONY NOICE: "Well, that has a lot to do with it, but then there's something about what we call 'active experiencing' which is not a theater term; it's one my wife and I coined to describe this to psychologists. But the act of experiencing, of really meaning what you are saying and meaning it in terms of the other actors -- really looking them in the eyes and trying to affect the change in their eyes by influencing them with whatever you are trying to do at that moment -- seems to not only improve memory for the specific lines, but it also improves memory in general. Because when we do four weeks of it, this sort of training for people in their 60s through 90s, we find that their ability to memorize anything improves."

AA: "And so what it sounds like to me you're saying is that acting is really pretending."

TONY NOICE: "No. In fact, I would say just the opposite. We always stop the people the second there's any indication that they are pretending. We stop them and say, 'No, don't pretend to do it, just do it. Do it for real.' And if you're trying to threaten the other person, really threaten the other actor -- right now. Don't try to look and sound like you're doing it, don't pretend, do it for real."

RS: "That could be kind of scary. [laughter]"

TONY NOICE: "Oh yes!"

AA: "If you have a knife in your hand or something."

TONY NOICE: "In fact, we often tell beginning acting students that we know you'll have trouble with this because acting is, among other things, an act of bravery. It really is hard to go out there and really try to affect another person."

RS: "I want to bring our audience into this. Now what suggestions or what, perhaps, what exercises -- what exercises would you suggest that you use that our students of English as a foreign language might find useful?"

TONY NOICE: "Oh, I think just the very basic application of always saying, 'What is the purpose of this sentence?' Obviously it applies directly to drama or comedy. But in addition to that it applies to almost anything, because we've done these studies with boring prose material, computer instructions and so forth, and we still find it benefits memory if, instead of trying to just remember the computer instructions, you picture yourself giving this information to a person, a good friend who vitally needs it. And you really try to get through to this person in your imagination.

"And so I would say using your imagination to not just remember the information but really live the material, try to make it as active as you possibly can by, in your own mind, communicating whatever you're trying to remember to another person."

RS: Tony Noice teaches theater at Elmhurst College in Illinois, where his wife Helga is a psychology professor. They describe their research in this month's issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

AA: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is And you can read and listen to all our segments at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.