How’s Your Hippocampus?

by Terry Oliver on March 3, 2013

Writing a play about older people raises lots of problems. The biggest one being who will play the parts and how will they remember their lines? The other night in a small studio theatre in San Miguel in Mexico, a group of over a dozen actors crowded on to the pocket stage to do a public reading of my black comedy A LEAP IN THE DARK, a play about end of life choices. Not a subject you would expect to provide a lot of bellylaughs but the audience seemed to find a few as the playreading progressed.

Talking to some of the actors afterwards about a possible future full production being staged down here in this art colony beloved of Canadian and American mainly retired gringos, several of them raised a potential difficulty. Older actors are reluctant to learn lines because of a fear of forgetting them and being embarassed on stage.

So as a result, much of the lively theatre scene here in San Miguel involves staged readings – that is, they are full productions with sets, props and action BUT – the actors all carry scripts throughout the play. This strikes you as odd at first, but you soon simply accept it as a stage convention and ignore it.

However, when the play involves characters who are 70 plus and the casting uses actors of a similar age or older, someone pointed out another problem. Many older actors find it hard to read their scripts and move about the stage performing simultaneously. A bit like President Ford’s famed inability to walk and chew gum at the same time.

It’s a problem of  short term memory loss and the culprit is a tiny part of the brain called the hippocampus, so-called because of its slight resemblance to the tiny seahorse. Turns out the little hippocampus has a big role to play in how we remember stuff. It acts as a clearinghouse for all the thoughts we have and decides what to do with them – whether to store them for immediate access or file them away in the other parts of the brain for long term memories.

The problem arises as we get older and the aging hippocampus begins to misfire. Memories get misplaced and short term memory loss starts to occur more frequently. We rummage about frantically trying to recall a name or fact we’ve just been told but nothing happens – a blank.

This is all mildly amusing to most of us aging folks but to an actor staring out at an expectant audience it is terrifying. Who would willingly subject themselves to such an experience? As a result, many fine actors, male and female simply stop acting. But not here in San Miguel.

For many years now the tradition of fully staged playreadings has allowed them to continue doing what they love – acting. And the audiences get to see and hear many excellent plays and live performances they would not otherwise experience if normal rehearsal methods were used. By not having to memorise lines, rehearsal times are drastically shortened and lots more plays get performed – including mine. In fact, roughly a new production every two weeks – over two dozen plays a year. That’s a record London and New York would be proud of.

As the baby boomer generation moves into its late sixties, this may be the theatre’s way to make a comeback once we accept this new convention. Because judging by the enthusiastic support of these staged readings here, people can’t get enough of them. Unless you arrive early you may get turned away because of full houses. Commercial managements can only dream of this scenario.

So, if I want to see a full staged production of my play, I’d better get used to seeing actors emoting with scripts clutched in their hands. And I’d better get started with my next play because the demand for new material is increasing.

Meantime my hippocampus will just have to keep struggling with whatever keeps coming at it and hope it doesn’t get too overwhelmed.

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Sheila March 4, 2013 at 12:18 am

It’s amazing to see what some of these older actors who no longer memorize lines have to offer. The power of their many years of experience can be brought to bear in parts they are reading with almost the same impact they had in roles formerly played by memory. This has been a fairly recent discovery for me and I shall be forever grateful to all those actors who perform this way, rather than give up their acting careers while still in their 60’s. It was a real treat to see Terry’s play come to life in their hands!

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