Try to Remember: Garrett Ayer-Better Wants to Teach Actors a Memorize Their Lines

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NOTHING SEEMED TO BE WORKING. AN OLDER actress sat on stage during tech rehearsals for a new play, and, try as she might, she just couldn't remember what to say. She had very little blocking, and with an aging brain, was convinced that she couldn't remember her lines. Director Emily Mann tried everything she could to help the performer, but at the end of the day, a jerry-rigged teleprompter had to be installed in the stage manager's booth. Defeat.

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Garrett Ayers, an intern at the time at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., where Mann is the artistic director, sat in on the rehearsal and observed.

"I would come in every day, and it just broke my heart," Ayers remembers. "I started thinking: This is the fundamental skill that every actor--no matter what style, what culture, what language--has to master, and it's not taught. It became my calling."

This wasn't the first time that Ayers had encountered the problem, and he knew it was not an issue exclusive to older performers. Ayers moved to New York after college to pursue work as a director, and he started Project Theater. The actors in his shows took a long time to memorize their lines, and as a result, he spent rehearsals focusing on getting the cast off-book instead of working out the material. Consequently, the shows struggled. What to do?

After his internship at the McCarter, Ayers didn't take on any directing projects for a year, and dove into memory study. He read Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein, about Foer's own quest into the science of memorization. In the book, Foer visits memory championships where competitors outdo each other in challenges like remembering an entire deck of cards. One of these "memory champions," Ron White, has his own industry and training program, which Ayers bought and then applied to his knowledge of theatre. White has worked with real estate agents, waiters, bartenders, lawyers, ministers, yoga teachers and other professionals on their memory, and Ayers was shocked to learn that similar tools had never been applied to theatre.

"These techniques are not new; I did not invent them. The Greek and Roman philosophers were doing this before the printed word," Ayers says.

He bases his program, aptly titled How to Remember, on the following assumption: Our mind thinks in pictures and organizes those pictures in locations. While many actors have mastered the visualization part, they miss a crucial step, in Ayers's eyes, which is to associate those images with places. Many actors do this by linking their lines with their blocking, but this creates problems when some performers say they can't be off-book um i I the show is locked, or in TV and film when actors have to show up on set with everything memorized. Ayers teaches actors to find those locations in their mind and organize the images so the lines can be retrieved at will.

"Every actor--no matter what they do right now--their method is really hope. You're repeating it over and over again or you're highlighting your lines or whatever you're doing," Ayers explains. "My main goal with all of this is to teach actors about the process of memory so they can be proactive and strategic about approaching their text."

Mann, for one, couldn't agree more, and she's excited at the prospect. "Jr seems like a no-brainer! Why haven't we had t h is?" Mann says. "Everyone struggles with me norization. It's much more prevalent than jeuiIe know, but we've just been able to hide it very well from the public and will continue to do so. it's not just with older actors. There are all these different techniques that are not really taught in drama school."

FOR ACTOR KATHY PARADISE, AYERS'S techniques were her saving grace. Paradise met Ayers when he directed her in a small role in a production. of Prelude to a Kiss at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, and though she hasn't had a major role onstage since the early '90s, she was recently cast as Mother Superior in Apes of God. …