Total Recall

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By Rhiannon Vivian

Earlier this week I learned four verses of a song I’d never attempted to get to grips with before. I got it around 60% right on the night. And the rest was improvised.

Ask me what the lay out of my family home between the ages of 0-4 years old and I can tell you with probably around 98% accuracy (MATHS). I can also sprinkle some details: brown & white wallpaper to make your eyes curdle, downstairs loo taps comfortingly shaped like The Clangers, the golden fan-like middle part of the circular dresser drawer handles, and the burgundy shades of nail varnish atop. I can likely add fair amount of anecdotes too. Who didn’t dance to Ceefax on plastic chairs, or stroke the captivating green netting around the strawberry patch.

So, what is wrong with my short-term (or working) memory? Basically, I think my ‘phonological loop’ is f*cked. That’s apparently the fancy name for the brain part that deals with spoken and written material – for example learning a phone number; a task I relish as much as I would dragging my face cheek from a snowy peak right down to the centre of the burning earth.

Why is any of this relevant to improv? Well, my recent attempts at learning lines, has made the idea of recalling new things and our individual ability in doing so, particularly pertinent. I also find it endlessly fascinating, probably <because> I find it hard. Why do I (and likely so many others) find it so hard to retain and then speak or sing something new, verbatim? Yet, despite having no scripts in improv, we exercise our memories endlessly. As a memory-tard I am acutely aware of this, and curious as to why I don’t find <this> form of recollection as hard or stressful as scripts or song lyrics.

As a child I distinctly remember thinking, ‘I love comedy, I love drama and I love funny. But I cannot go to drama school, because I cannot learn pre-prepared dialogue.’ (Not even pre-prepared by me as I found out, when writing stuff for assembly or trying to learn a home-penned rap about a cello.) I kept thinking this must just be something to be overcome. But my recent accuracy hit rate has made me wonder otherwise. Are some of us just genetically better at verbatim and others better at getting the ‘gist’ of something? This is why I’m so drawn to improv. It ticks all the boxes except the scary, ‘by rote’ one.

Something I found very interesting was a little factoid from a friend of mine who has done shows in the West End. She revealed that as understudy she had to learn her part exactly. No ‘should’ instead of ‘would’ or ‘shall not,’ instead of ‘won’t,’ it had to be spot on. All I can say is that I have a huge amount of respect for anyone who can learn something so completely. And I’m baffled as to how.

Now, seasoned auditionees probably have names for all these methods, but having not learned anything in years, I found myself devising all sorts of (I assumed unique) ways to make those aforementioned song lyrics stick in my head. From writing them over (fail), to listening to the song on repeat (fail) to endless repetition aloud (ok) I couldn’t hit on anything that really worked. Until I started walking around my flat to different points: ah, we’re at the clock – I say ‘homies’ in this bit! Oh hello painting, now I sing ‘busters’ (Pretty good). But oddly, the <most> effective was adding some physical gestures, which once I had down, I then tried to contain like internal dance moves, doubling as cues.

To this end, I will never take for granted the freedom we have with improv. It’s far less terrifying than having a script. However, what’s REALLY curious, is that there obviously a lot of memory involved in improv too. But I wonder if it exercises a different portion of the brain because, when it comes to callbacks, remembering rhyme set ups, storing names and reincorporating, I don’t panic in the same way. Is it because when we simply listen, and let the brain filter the information, the stuff will come? Or is it the lack of constraints? Or the championing of individual though processing?

One of the joys of doing an improv show, is knowing that your callbacks are unlikely to ever be exactly the same as <anyone> else in your troupe. It’s what makes improv so deliciously personal. And afterwards you can ponder, delight in but probably <never> understand why your brain decided the most important things from the show were the cheese, the king’s bicep and a totem pole; while your teammate’s subconscious got fixated with the spiders and Uncle Ralph. I love it.

For me, this is why improv is so utterly compelling and addictive. And while recollection definitely has a place in life (gracious, you need to remember where to go home to at the end of every day, and yes it IS nice to be able to sing a song from start to finish), I think the places we ask our memories to go to during an improv show, are the most curious and original destinations of all…


1 Comment
  1. I’ve been trying to work out why I’m not nervous before improv shows (or at least, nowhere near as nervous as I used to be when I was in plays) and I think this gets to the heart of it. Some people find having a script to be tremendously reassuring — a crutch to lean on, if you will — whereas I, perhaps because my memory isn’t always the best, am all too aware of the fragility of that crutch, and the consequences if it were to snap. To me, and perhaps to you, the LACK of a script is the reassuring thing.

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