If Babies Can Remember, Why Do Adults Forget?

I’ve found that adults often take object permanence for granted. It isn’t a simple concept. When we were babies, we actually needed to learn that things don’t disappear when we stop looking at them. So why then do storytellers lose sight of this when performing on the page or on stage?

I roll my eyes each time an improviser walks through a table. Once it is established at center stage, everybody should be careful to walk around the table when playing in that scenery. I remember one show when a fellow player blithely strolled through a table I remembered was there. Making a joke of it, I “bumped into” the table and fell flat on my rear. The primary joke was the physical comedy. The second, more subtle joke was the commentary on the permanence of the object. To reinforce the second joke, I made the exiting line, “By God! He’s got a freaking superpower.”  The player made it a game for the show and walked through scenery all night long.

It’s amazing how big of an effect calling back to specific details, especially physical objects or actions, can garner. I can remember the very first time I played solo on stage. It was a festival performance, where I played a format called “Mr. Simmon’s Story Time,” in which I received a fictitious children’s book title as a suggestion and then played out story time with finger puppets.

The first couple minutes were horrible. Forget the crickets chirping, I’m pretty sure I heard someone sneeze in the bathroom. Stalling for time, and trying to figure out how I was going to save the scene, I reached over and absentmindedly turned the page in the “storybook” that I had sat down next to me. To me, this was a throwaway gesture meant to stall. But, for some reason, the audience laughed uproariously. Encouraged, I continued with my scene. Whenever the laughs started dying off, all I had to do was reach over and turn a page in the storybook. It was hilarious until the curtain dropped.

I have found that, in writing, mistakes with object permanence are noticeable and distracting. Not only does description need to be consistent, but it needs to complement internally coherent blocking. Object permanence also translates well into idea permanence. If an idea is established early in a series, and then it becomes pivotal later, you look brilliant. After talking to several authors, I’ve come to the conclusion that often the audience can’t tell if the author is exploiting a throwaway idea that has suddenly become useful, or if it was the master plan all along. If a Checkov’s gun is to be used, however, it must be put on the mantle before it is needed.


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