Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Stage actors share secrets for strong memories

Patrick Treadway, left, as Arles Struvie, and Michael Weaver as Thurston Wheelis, chat on the air at OKKK radio station in a scene from Interplayers’ “Greater Tuna.” (Dan Pelle)

If you ask boomers to list their top 10 aging anxieties, “declining memory” often ranks high on the list.

This prompted us to think about a particular class of people whose memories are famously prodigious, not to mention vital to their jobs: stage actors.

They must memorize vast quantities of dialogue and then reproduce it, word-perfect, under stress. Anyone who has tried to memorize even one Shakespearean sonnet can see how impressive it is to commit “Hamlet” to memory.

So we went to two of the premier stage actors of our region, Patrick Treadway, 53, and Michael Weaver, 55, and asked them two simple questions: How do they do it? And what tips might be useful for the rest of us?

Treadway leads workshops on memorization for actors, and his most valuable insight may also be the simplest: We all have better memories than we realize. We just need to get them organized.

For instance, let’s take the common problem of memorizing a shopping list. Treadway suggests something called:

The Body List. Your body can easily be divided into 10 parts. No. 1 is the feet, No. 2 the knees, and so on. So you assign each item to one of your body parts, and then you visualize an image that involves both the body part and the grocery item.

“For my feet, I will break a dozen eggs with my feet,” Treadway said. “I will pour milk on my knees. I will chop broccoli with my thighs.”

It doesn’t have to make sense – in fact, the more outrageous the image, the better.

“Making the images sexual or disgusting makes it work even better,” he said. “Making it embarrassing makes it more vivid.”

Meanwhile, Weaver suggested another memory strategy that would also work particularly well for a grocery list.

Make a Mental Map: Instead of trying to hold a grocery list in your mind, it’s actually easier to draw a map in your mind, containing all of the parts of the grocery store you want to visit. When you get to the store, just start walking your route. The destinations themselves will probably trigger the memory of the particular item you’re after. And if not, just start looking around. You’re probably standing right in front of it.

Visualization is one of the recurring themes in both Weaver’s and Treadway’s memory strategies. Treadway finds that, when he teaches his workshops, some students will inevitably say that they are no good at “making pictures in their heads.”

“I say, ‘Well, close your eyes. Now, tell me what color necktie I am wearing.’ They say, ‘You’re not wearing a necktie.’ They’re right, and in order to know that, they must have made a mental picture,” Treadway said.

Treadway teaches his students that not only are they better at visualization than they think, but that they are far better at memorization. Even people with “bad” memories are holding thousands of things in their memories. The key to remembering any particular thing is to make it interesting and vivid enough to stand out. Thus, the vivid image of chopping broccoli with your thighs.

Weaver suggested another simple and proven visualization method, which can cure a big source of embarrassment for many of us: forgetting people’s names.

The Celebrity Visualization: When Weaver meets somebody named, let’s say Jill Shaffer, he visualizes a friend of his named Jill standing next to Paul Shaffer, leader of David Letterman’s band. When he sees Jill Shaffer again, that odd couple pops into his head and the name is there for the taking.

Actors, of course, have to memorize a far larger volume than most of us, and subsequently, many of them use far more complex memory devices, such as …

The Memory Palace: This is a memory trick used for millennia, and Treadway finds it useful as his Emergency Memory Backup Plan. The basic idea is this: You visualize a palace with 10 rooms, and each room has 10 places within it (west wall, east wall, floor, ceiling, etc), for a total of 100 spaces. Then, as you are memorizing something, you “place” parts of the task into each individual space.

Treadway has mentally constructed such a palace for his next role at Interplayers Theatre, the title role of “Barrymore.”

Each page of the script is “projected,” in his mind, onto a surface of a room. When the director asks him, for instance, to go to Page 9 of the script, Treadway goes, in his mind’s eye, to the correct room and the correct space, and there is the page, shimmering in the ether.

“Page 9 is on the floor of the lobby,” he said. “I can see the whole page on my mind if I need to.”

Treadway said he uses the “palace” only when he gets stuck. It’s like “having somebody in the home office” to call in an emergency.

There are many variations on the Memory Palace idea. If you have, for instance, a familiar walking route, you can “store” memories at landmarks along the route and then you can take your “walk” in your imagination and pick up the memories stored along the way. Weaver said he knew one fellow actor who knew all of the U.S. presidents by number and would equate each page of a script to a president (a system that works only up to Page 44).

Both Treadway and Weaver agree that the best way to learn an entire script is simply the organic way: You remember the idea of the dialogue – what the playwright is trying to say – as opposed to strictly a string of words.

“I go for the through-line of the play,” said Weaver. “When somebody says something to you, there is only one logical thing to say back.”

This makes it easier to remember the gist of a line or a speech and makes it easier for the actor to convey meaning to the audience. Unfortunately, “the gist” is not good enough for professional actors. They must be word-perfect. So to get every word in its proper place, Weaver advocates the most tried-and-true – and occasionally dreaded – of all memory devices.

Repetition, repetition, repetition – “I say each line four times in a row, and if I have to look down at the script to check, or screw up one word, I have to start over and do it four more times,” said Weaver.

If he gets it right all four times, he’s well on the way to getting it right for good.

“I had one professor who said, ‘You learn the lines. You forget them. Then you learn them again. Once you learn them again, you have them,’ ” Weaver said.

As in most kinds of learning, it’s also easier to divide the material into less intimidating sections.

Cut it into chunks – If you have to memorize one full page of text, for instance, divide it into fifths. Get the first fifth under your belt before tackling the second fifth, and so on. Once you have all five pieces mastered, you merely have to string them together.

Treadway’s experience in memorizing scripts has changed drastically over the decades, in a way that parallels the way many of our boomer minds work.

“When I was 20, scripts used to go in automatically and easily, almost photographic,” said Treadway.

Now, it takes more work. The reason has nothing to do with diminished brain capacity or dying brain cells or any of the other physical issues that boomers agonize over. Treadway said that for most of us, the “hardware” continues to work just fine.

The difference, he said, is that when he was 20, a new script struck him as brilliant, magical, interesting and vivid. Thirty years and hundreds of scripts later, he has become a little more jaded. The average script now seems – well, less vivid, and thus harder to lodge in the brain. That explains why so many memory exercises have the simple goal of creating a more vivid image for the brain.

It also explains why some playwrights’ words are easier to memorize than others. Both actors said that Shakespeare, surprisingly, is one of the easiest. That’s because his plays were written specifically to be memorized, with a poetic rhythm and a wealth of exceptionally colorful imagery. Contemporary playwrights like David Mamet and Alan Ayckbourn are harder, because their dialogue mimics the way people actually talk – with lots of umms and ahhs and a conspicuous lack of poetic imagery. There’s less for the memory to hold onto.

Anxiety is one of the most serious obstacles to memory, which is why Treadway goes out of his way to show the students in his workshop that their memories are actually pretty good. The fear of memorization is worse than the reality.

“Learning lines in a play is like doing the dishes,” Weaver said. “I’ll put it off as long as I can, but once I get started, it’s not so bad.”

We’ll leave you with a point that might make the memory-anxious among us feel better. These two men continue to memorize hundreds of pages every year, yet they describe their own memories like this:

“Pretty average,” said Weaver.

“Not that terrific,” said Treadway.