Monday, January 4, 2016


Over the years I have been called upon to commit to memory a speech, poem or monologue from a play. On a couple of occasions I have acted in plays where I needed to learn whole lines of variable length and complexity. I have never found this an easy task, and I must confess that I find the task even more difficult as I get older.

I used to learn the material off by rote. That method sometimes worked, but it failed me on one memorable occasion that I can recall. I had to learn a very long portion of a piece of Masonic ritual. The piece was in three parts. I spent months learning the material line by line, obviously beginning with the first line, and when I had committed that to memory, I went on to the second line, and then the third, and so on. In my mind, the second sentence had become ‘attached’ to the first, and the third ‘attached’ to the second, and so on, right to the very last line. 

Now, on the night I was to deliver the speech, I was told that three people would share the delivery of the speech, and that I would deliver only the final third part of the speech. Well, I didn’t know where to begin. Not being able to start with the first line, I stumbled on almost every line and had to be prompted. It was most embarrassing. So much for learning one line after the other by rote. However, if that method works well for you, use it.

Here’s some philosophy that, in my opinion, is worth its weight in gold. It says much about life as well as linguistics. Now, David Hume (1711-1776) [pictured left] was a Scottish philosopher of very great renown. He was an empiricist who saw the world as a continuum -- actually, more of a drift -- of ideas. Think of your speech, poem or play lines as a drift of ideas, one after the other, for such is the workings of the human mind – one thought, feeling or sensation after another. After all, the primary purpose of words is to convey ideas. Get into the ‘look’, ‘feel’ and ‘sound’ of the idea—and make the idea your own. Pay attention to the idea above all else. Once the idea has been committed to memory, then you can direct your attention to the words themselves.

Now, no matter how tenuous the connection, there is always some sort of connection (‘association’) between one idea and the next. This is what Hume had to say about the matter:

It is evident that there is a principle of connection between the different thoughts or ideas of the mind, and that in their appearance to the memory or imagination, they introduce each other with a certain degree of method and regularity. (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1784), I:I:3.)

The author of the material has given some thought to the connections between one idea and the next. This is not a matter of chance but rather deliberate determination. Says Hume, ‘Were ideas entirely loose and unconnected, chance alone would join them’ (A Treatise of Human Nature, I:I:4). One or more lines of your material encapsulate an idea -- perhaps more than one idea -- so commit the idea to your memory. Then proceed to note, and then commit to memory, the connection between one idea and the next, and the one thereafter, and so on. 

According to Hume, ‘the same simple ideas … fall regularly into complex ones’, for such is life. Life is simply the continuum of one moment after another. For the public speaker or actor, the important thing, insofar as the succession of ideas is concerned, is to decipher, and then commit to memory, the ‘bond of union among them, some associating quality by which one idea naturally introduces another’ (Treatise, I:I:4). Association is the uniting principle, but it ‘is not to be considered as an inseparable connection ... Nor yet are we to conclude that without it the mind cannot join two ideas ... But we are only to regard it as a gentle force, which commonly prevails’ (Treatise, I:I:4). So, for Hume association is in the nature of a ‘gentle force’ which develops from what he termed ‘original qualities of human nature’ and which ‘point[s] out to everyone those simple ideas which are most proper to be united into a complex one’ (Treatise, I:I:4).

Let's now apply the above mentioned ideas to the task of learning a speech, poem or play. First, read, then re-read, then re-read again, the material to be learned. Get a ‘feel’ for the material as a whole. The ‘secret’ is to get into the mind of the author … and to think, feel and act from there. When it comes to a play, you need to do more, that is, to get into the mind of the character you’re playing such that the ideas -- in terms of the lines spoken -- become your ideas. Become, at least for a time, the character you’re playing. Their thoughts become your thoughts (but not necessarily in ‘real’ life). In time, as you come to identify more and more with the character you’re playing, the ideas, and the associations between one idea and another, will become almost automatic, natural and spontaneous. Get interested in the writer of the material (in the case of, say, a poem) and the character you’re playing (in the case of a play). The more you are interested, the easier it becomes to maintain attention, awareness and concentration … and the easier it becomes to remember.

Never forget this. First, the idea -- that is, the form of the words – then the substance, that is, the words themselves. Not only is there an association between one idea and the next idea, there is also an association between an idea itself and the words that the author has chosen to give expression to that idea. The last mentioned association is especially useful for you, the speaker or actor, for it serves as your mnemonic. (A mnemonic is any learning technique that aids information retention in the human memory.) So, learn the ideas as opposed to the words. This is the good advice of the internationally renowned Australian theatrical and opera director Gale Edwards [pictured right]. When it comes to your lines, look for what are known as ‘key lines’ – the lines that are most central to the idea or image being communicated. The key lines will serve as an anchor in your mind to which the other lines in your material are attached.

Where does mindfulness come into all this? Well, it already has, for mindfulness is the watchful, receptive, deliberate, and purposeful presence of bare attention to, and choiceless awareness of, the content of the action (both internal and external) of the present moment ... from one moment to the next. The word ‘presence’ refers to both physical and psychological presence -- of you, your body, and your mind. 'Watchful' presence means that there you are very much aware that you're aware---or not aware as the case may be---of what is going on in and about you, and this alert and open awareness, attention and ongoing observation makes use of all your senses as well as your mind and proceeds deliberately, purposefully, intentionally and receptively on your part.

I use the word ‘content’ because it is ‘content’ -- of ideas, images, words and actions, all of which are occurrences in time and space -- of which the speaker or actor must be aware, and to which they must give clear, focused and single-minded attention and concentration. The content of the speaker or actor’s awareness will be both internal (eg thoughts, feelings, mental images, as well as bodily sensations and the like) and external (sounds, sights, actions, etc).

Now, what do we mean by ‘bare attention’? Well, bare attention falls short of naming, labelling, judging, analysing, interpreting, approving, condemning, and so forth. In his book The Heart of Buddhist Meditation (San Francisco CA: Weiser Books, [1954] 1965, p 30) -- a truly wonderful book on insight meditation (mindfulness) -- the monk and teacher Nyanaponika Thera [pictured left] defines, or rather describes, bare attention in these words:

Bare attention is the clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us, at the successive moments of perception. It is called ‘bare’, because it attends just to the bare facts of a perception as presented either through the five physical senses or through the mind which, for Buddhist thought, constitutes the sixth sense. When attending to that sixfold sense impression, attention or mindfulness is kept to a bare registering of the facts observed, without reacting to them by deed, speech or by mental comment which may be one of self-reference (like, dislike, etc), judgement or reflection. … [original emphasis]

Bare attention does not mean minimal attention. On the contrary, it means total and unadulterated attention to the action of the moment – without allowing yourself to be deflected by extraneous matters. Bare attention is needed not only when learning one’s lines but also in delivering them. If you are an actor, you also need to have the same level of attention to the action of the play as it unfolds. And the phrase ‘choiceless awareness’? Well, awareness is ‘choiceless’ when there is no preference, and no prejudice -- that is, no judgment or selectiveness -- as respects the content of one’s awareness. Ordinarily, we tend to be aware of some things but not others.

Lucille Ball in a touring production of the play Dream Girl, 1947-48

Now, take these lines from the play Dream Girl (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1945, pp 69-70) by Elmer Rice. I have used different colours to highlight various connections -- groupings and chains of thought of like character, rhythm, mood and feeling -- in the drift of ideas and images as well as some connections within a single idea or image.

CLARK. Because dreaming is easy and life is hard. Because when you dream, you make your own rules, but when you try to do something, the rules are made for you by the limitations of your own nature and the shape of the world you live in. Because no matter how much you win in your dreams, your gains are illusory, and you always come away empty-handed. But in life, whether you win or lose, you’ve always got something to show for it—even if it’s only a scar or a painful memory.

GEORGINA. Scars are ugly and pain hurts.

CLARK. Without ugliness, there would be no beauty. And if you’re afraid to know pain, you’ll never know the value of pleasure.

GEORGINA. You’re a tough guy aren’t you?

CLARK. Well, I’ve had to fight my own way through life, ever since I can remember. You either get tough, or else you go under.

GEORGINA. It’s not the way I was brought up. I always had people to protect me.

CLARK. If you bandage a muscle long enough, it withers. And that goes for your emotions, too. If you keep smothering them with dreams, they’ll die after a while.

Of course, as any actor knows, you need to know your cues, a cue being the last bit of the previous actor’s line or the event leading to yours. Once again, I find it helps to think not just in terms of the actual word or words but also the ideas expressed. In the above exchange between the extroverted newspaperman Clark Redfield and the daydreaming bookshop owner Georgina Allerton, it is easy to see how the real cues lie in the ideas expressed (dreaming versus life, wins and gains, ugliness and beauty, pain and pleasure, toughness and fighting versus protection, bandaging, withering and smothering).

In summary, make the ‘law’ of association work for you. Think of your speech, poem or play lines as a drift of ideas, one after the other, and learn to give those images visible and audible expression. Act, react, and project. Get into the ‘look’, ‘feel’ and ‘sound’ of the idea, focusing especially on your key lines. Pay attention to the idea above all else, for it is ideas which, first and foremost, you are to communicate to your listeners or audience. Once the idea has been committed to memory, then pay attention to the words. It will then be that much easier. Look for and commit to memory the association between one idea and the next, as well as the association between an idea itself and the words giving expression to that idea. Also, look for and commit to memory any connections within a single idea.  

Finally, practise mindfulness, which as Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn has said, means – ‘Paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.’ Give bare (that is, clear, focused and unadulterated) attention. Maintain choiceless awareness. In other words, be both physically and psychologically present at all times -- and generate and maintain interest and enthusiasm in what you are doing.

Acknowledgments. Dream Girl (New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc) by Elmer Rice. Copyright © 1945, 1946, by Elmer Rice. Copyrights reserved, 1972, 1973, by Barbara Rice, Robert Rice, John A Rice, Margaret Cooper, Judith Rice and Paul Rice. All rights reserved. The Heart of Buddhist Meditation (San Francisco CA: Weiser Books) by Nyanaponika Thera. Copyright © 1954, 1962, 1996 Buddhist Publication Society. All rights reserved.


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