The Low-Down On The Emotional Memory Exercise

Funny stuff. But after I stop laughing, I wonder, really, John, you were working on your dog dying?!?! You’re Strasberg-trained and one of the edgiest and most interesting actors around. A personal favorite of mine, and the best you can come up with is your dog?

[Sigh] Well, I guess it’s as good a place as any to start with Emotional Memory (often interchangeably called ‘Affective Memory’ or ‘Emotional Recall’). First of all, what is it? It is a technique by which you experience the reality from some moment of your life. You live through the sensation of that moment and trigger an honest emotional response as if that something were happening right now.

Actors have tried this without training throughout history with mixed results (usually in a desperate attempt to cry on cue). People think of a dead relative or a sad moment. Most untrained folks don’t get very far – the body rebels, muscles contract, the voice changes and restricts expression. Tears? No. Usually dry as the desert. The great Stanislavsky is famously reported to have said that he could not make the Emotional Memory work consistently.

But if that’s so, then what the heck was Lee Strasberg going on about? How do trained actors get in touch with real and powerful emotions despite the well-conditioned human tendency to repress them?

Here’s how: You start by releasing physical tension in the body (Relaxation will be a topic for another entry). You place yourself at the time you wish to experience and you ask questions: What do I see? What do I hear? What do I smell? What do I taste? What do I feel on my skin? Is it hot? Cold? Where do you feel that temperature? What part of the body? What am I wearing? Can I feel the fabric? Is there anyone else there? Can I see them? Hear them? What do they look like? What does their voice sound like? And so on.

That is the exercise. Really. That’s it. There is the scary secret uncloaked. Like most great things, its genius is in its simplicity.

We keep an actor’s attention purely on the physical sensations they can experience. You may say a woman wears too much perfume, but we want you inhale the cloying, too-sweet assault on your nose and let the gag reflex kick in. We want you to actually smell, not narrate.

When you do this, you light the match that sparks your own latent emotion  – stuff that is already in you. Plus you build the intuitive skills necessary for all great acting. Even when you are not doing an exercise, you become more observant, more attuned to your surroundings, and more responsive to stimulus, whether imaginary or otherwise.

We don’t push actors to be emotional, or create emotions. My father said emotion is like a little child, if you chase after it, it will run away. So we don’t chase. We simply look, smell, listen, taste, and touch our world, and Emotion comes out to play.

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