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Performance, Memory and the Aging Actor

By Robert Bethune

ART TIMES April 2007


I'm a Boomer, born in 1954. Do a little arithmetic—we Boomers hate arithmetic; weíre the generation that embraced the calculator as children—and you find out Iíve crossed the magic barrier, that dear old decade, the big Five-Oh. Along with that come the sort of changes you really would prefer to avoid, but like death and taxes, you canít.

Iím also an actor. Iíve been acting since about 1969. Iím thoroughly used to memorizing lines, learning blocking, developing timing, projecting, finding and communicating feeling and character—all the things that actors do. Over the years, Iíve developed techniques and approaches to acting that work for me.

Well, when you hit that magic Five-Oh, things change. For me, the big change was memory. As a younger actor, I didnít have to work very hard at memorization. I was a quick study and lines came easily. Depending on the play and the rehearsal period, sometimes I didnít have to work on my lines outside of rehearsal at all; I would just absorb them in the course of around-the-table or blocking work, and they would be there when I needed them. I could focus entirely on living in the moment, confident that the words would be there, or, in the worst case, that I might paraphrase somewhat.

Last year that changed. It was a really brutal shock when I went blank on stage for the first time in my career. I donít mean just being uncertain of the current line and perhaps jumping to the next one to cover. I mean stopping dead in my tracks in front of an audience, unable to continue and needing to be rescued by my fellow cast members. I also mean losing that crucial sense of confidence, that security that the lines would be there in the moment. Fortunately, Iím not particularly stupid, and the next time I accepted a role I also accepted the necessity of ensuring that I would not go blank again. I completely changed the way I study lines. I adopted a technique similar to audio-lingual study of a second language—many, many short sessions, each devoted to a small chunk of text, spaced out fairly frequently over the course of a day and a week. This technique compensated for my weakening short-term memory, ensuring that all the little chunks of text got securely stored in long-term memory where they belong.

However, the lesson plan Nature had in store for me wasnít over. Again, it took the form of a nasty blocked moment on stage. This time, however, it wasnít that I didnít know the lines; it was that I didnít realize that my concentration no longer snaps into place by reflex. I had this wonderful bit, a moment of audience interaction, which got a great laugh and was very enjoyable—too much so. As it happened, I enjoyed it so much that I let my concentration slip without realizing it, and then launched into the next passage without properly re-establishing it. Of course, the next speech managed to slip away in mid-stream. Again, a sharp fellow actor rescued me.

Along the way, I noticed that I teeter a bit in 18th-century high-heeled menís shoes. So thereís one more thing to watch out for, namely balance.

Being a self-centered Boomer, Iím mostly worried about what this means for me. However, it has dimly pierced my auto-focused Boomer fog that there are other people out there like me—actors who have crossed the magic line, at whatever age applies to them, when minds are changing in ways that require adaptation. So, Iíve reached the only conclusion a Boomer can reach—that the world should pay attention to us.

Actually, this isnít really asking too much. There is a lot of research being done on aging and how to deal with work and life issues related to aging. What Iím looking for is work directed toward the needs of aging actors. There are a lot of us, just as there is a lot of anything related to my generation. We donít plan on going gently into that good night, oh no, our age will burn and rage till close of day. We need to find out how best to keep ourselves going, how best to compensate for the ravages of time, and thereby how best to keep our talents productive and creative for as long as possible. For some of us, it means applying research on memory to make it possible to master our lines effectively; for some, it may mean figuring out appropriate exercise programs to ensure that we retain balance, flexibility and coordination; others will have other needs.

The most important part of all this is our own attitudes. We must shed our typically Boomer complacency and get on the stick. Our talents and abilities remain ours, but they now require maintenance; they canít just be left on autopilot any more. We need to find out what to do and get with the program and do it, starting with finding out what is already out there to help us, and then proceeding to fill in the blanks and learn what really works. We have a great deal yet to deliver; letís make sure we keep ourselves up to the mark so that we can deliver it.

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