Memory Loss  –  Learning the lines or improvisation, or neither?

by Joan Calder, retired/volunteer work, Frome, UK 

It is a known fact among actors that there are moments on stage when you cannot remember how you arrived at the point you have reached, but more terrifyingly, you just cannot remember your lines. The mind goes blank and panic sets in. This can happen more frequently as they age until some have to give up their profession entirely. It is not only actors who suffer this in older life, all those who develop some form of dementia follow the same pattern.

Often in life we hear people confessing they find themselves somewhere and have no idea how they arrived there, or they can’t remember names, or what they were going to do next. Perhaps not so surprising, if as per Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage” and we are all transient actors entering and leaving.

Recently there was a research project with a group of older actors which came out with some surprising results. The research team followed a group of older actors as they took part in a course of improvisation classes at the National Theatre. Many actors who have been used to learning their lines and having to remember them find it difficult to improvise, the same with musicians, especially those older actors who were trained in the old way of learning lines by rote or memory and did not experience the newer style theatre training with lots of free form improvisation.

This group of actors were monitored whilst receiving a course of classes in improvisation. It was discovered that their memories improved, their confidence increased, they became more alive and active in the classes and also in their lives. With improvisation there was no possibility of the embarrassment, criticism, judgment or sense of failure they experienced with forgetting their lines mid performance.

They went on to form a company called “Lost without Words,” and they toured around the UK. No two shows were ever the same. They had no script, but on meeting a new audience each night they dialogued with them and took a theme and improvised on it. Their memories continued to improve, and their confidence continued to grow.

I believed in the past, and it is probably what I had been told when I was young, that learning reels of poetry was a very good way to keep your memory active and would prevent dementia in old age. Now I can see it may be the opposite.

What happens when we learn lines? They become ingrained in us so they seem to flow effortlessly, but it has been a lot of effort to put them into the system, and if we forget them we panic and make a big effort to remember. In this effort to remember, the brain squeezes and contracts itself in the search.

What happens when we contract in the body? We hold our breath, we reduce our blood flow, we limit space within us, reduce ourselves, withdraw from life. Vibrancy disappears, and dullness takes its place. It encourages a roller coaster of continual very subtle remembering/forgetting all the time, highs and lows, and the seeming flow is broken by minute moments of interruptions.

And making the effort to remember takes us from the present, we are going into the past, away from this lived moment where all can be fresh and new and expansive as we express ourselves here and now.

There is also learning the lines of life – the rules we have been taught to live by, the knowledge we have had to learn and abide by, the beliefs which were handed down to us and become ingrained in our consciousness and way of perceiving the world. They lock us in the past rather than living a continual unfolding of feeling what is appropriate, respectful, or necessary, discerned from our sense of what is going on in that moment.

The universe is ever expanding, and if we live an expanding life within this expansion then we grow and change and live vital and open lives, embracing all. This is what we begin to experience when we become students of The Way of The Livingness. There are no rules, only values; there are no beliefs, only felt truth; there is no nostalgic longing for the past or dwelling on it but learning from it, and an encouragement to be present, and to feel the future unfolding towards us, to even live it now – for we are shown how past, future and present are all one in the present moment, everything we have lived and that we return to is NOW. We can claim ourselves in every moment for who we truly are, and there is no need to remember, especially any lines. Everything is spontaneously felt and expressed.

Of course, we have to learn about life and the world, facts and figures, and how to do things, but there is this other way, which is not about cramming in information and recalling it, but living, sensing and feeling in the moment what is needed from the innate wisdom we all have within.

Serge Benhayon gives us the tools to live this way and demonstrates it in his own life. All he says is lived and expressed from within him. He never has a script or even notes prepared to refer to during any of his presentations, courses or even five day retreats. Even when he repeats a message or a truth, which he does often, it is never expressed the same way twice, and will vary according to the context, and what is being discussed or presented at the time.

In the Expression and Presentation Workshops, Serge gives us a subject to talk about, with no time to think, just speak. It seems like an improvisation class but not for playing a part on stage. This is for living all of life, being present with ourselves and speaking what is true and real from our hearts and our innermost being.

We are not there to play a part, we are there, in that moment, to express ourselves.

Living in this way frees us from holding on to an old belief that if we repeat lines we’ve said before we will feel safe, and encourages us to be open to whatever comes without expectation of any particular outcome. This gives us confidence (contrary to that old belief system that says we will be more confident if we know our lines) and an amazing feeling of expansion, of freedom to express from our own firm foundation, and it turns out it’s nothing to do with improvisation at all but is a sense of knowing oneself well and speaking and moving from that place in continual flow as we unfold.

It is only doubting ourselves that blocks this passage and throws us back on the old false ways of trying to stay in control and live within the lines. Many hold onto this to try and avoid dementia, but could it be the opposite is true?

The more we let go of control, memorising and recall, and live from the truth that lives in our hearts, being present in every moment with all that is occurring, where there is no need to escape or check-out, perhaps then we can live to a ripe old age with true confidence and a healthy responsive body and mind.

Read more:

  1. The forgotten side of dementia
  2. The Merchant of Venice and the ancient grudge

666 thoughts on “Memory Loss  –  Learning the lines or improvisation, or neither?

  1. What you share happens when we panic is so true, but something we do not think about at the time as we are so busy panicking – “We hold our breath, we reduce our blood flow, we limit space within us, reduce ourselves, withdraw from life.” And then everything usually seems twice as horrific as it actually is. So, no wonder forgetting their lines is an actor’s worst nightmare, especially if they have no idea of how their body is responding or how to return to being present with themselves once again. Getting to know our body intimately is one of the most supportive tools for any unexpected eventuality in life.

    1. “Getting to know our body intimately is one of the most supportive tools for any unexpected eventuality in life.” This is so true and yet generally we are not supported in this by parents or teachers in our foundational years. Just by asking “what does my tummy say? Or what does my heart say? We begin to allow the body to communicate to us and align to it’s wisdom.

      1. As you have shared the ways to support a child can be so very simple as in “what does my tummy say”. And from these simple but very powerful lessons on how to read what our bodies are saying, there is the potential to grow a new generation of adults whose connection to their bodies is totally natural. How world-changing that would be!

  2. I absolutely adore this blog, Joan, and the message you deliver. Having learned and memorised a lot of lines throughout the course of my life very much took me away from myself and the present for all the effort I had to put in to do so and took up huge amounts of energy. It’s as you say, ‘…making the effort to remember takes us from the present, we are going into the past, away from this lived moment where all can be fresh and new and expansive as we express ourselves here and now.’ The more I can clear the old scripts running through my head, the more I can be in the present moment and express from the fresh and new and bring not only truth back into my expression, but expansiveness as well.

  3. Aren’t we all / haven’t we all been playing a part, even those of us who are not ‘actors’ on a so-called stage? We are taught and accept from a very young age that freely expressing ourselves is not welcome and makes others feel uncomfortable so we join the queue on the long memorising and mesmerising road to learning our lines and conforming to others expectation of us. After a lifetime of acting how amazing it is for this group of older actors – how amazing would it be for each one of us – to finally take centre stage and truly express from the depth of their being. Exit stage left takes on a whole new meaning when it is not the actor but the stage itself that makes a timely, orderly and uneventful departure.

  4. All the times I have worked hard and tried to masterfully come up with the right thing to say are kicked into touch by simply being present in each moment, listening, feeling and responding… it is then that true communication, connection and relationship happens.

  5. Perhaps it is better to express words and lines with the impress of our own true nature rather than empty words imbued with another’s quality of expression that is not our truth.

    1. Agreed, what if we allowed ourselves to transform movies, theatre etc and become far grander in what is offered by having these forms of entertainment to truly educate and reflect the reality or the possibility that life offers.

  6. Some rules are certainly not to our advantage, and thus our education needs to be revised: “There is also learning the lines of life – the rules we have been taught to live by, the knowledge we have had to learn and abide by, the beliefs which were handed down to us and become ingrained in our consciousness and way of perceiving the world. They lock us in the past rather than living a continual unfolding of feeling what is appropriate, respectful, or necessary, discerned from our sense of what is going on in that moment.” It can be as simple as igniting our clairsentience and this is what supports our knowing of whether something will lock us in or allow us freedom to be.

    1. There are certainly many ‘rules’ in our lives which we have taken on, without discerning, which we use as props to get us through our days, and if we were to lose any of those props it is probably inevitable that we will feel adrift without our usual anchor. A bit like an actor who loses his place in the play. But to ‘ignite our clairsentience’ and to trust what we feel, offers us the wise support no matter what life throws at us, as our anchor in life – our clairsentience – will not cast us adrift.

  7. Joan this is a great sharing and makes me question how public speaking is taught at some schools where they insist on the student rote learning the speech to be presented to the public (what I have been witness to). Memorisation is not what allows true expression and it is true expression that engages the audience and delivers something for all to grow from and be inspired by.

    1. It certainly is ‘…true expression that engages the audience…’, Henrietta. Once the heart opens, what is being expressed can be felt in the way it is being expressed and in the movement of the body and eyes not only by the person expressing, but by the audience as well be that an audience of one or an auditorium full. And like you say, if it is true expression the delivery is there ‘…for all to grow from and be inspired by.’

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