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  • Writer's pictureGlenn English

"Sense Memory and How it Works"

For many young actors, the American Method remains something of a mystery. It’s often equated with legendary actors like Brando and James Dean, but it’s often linked to current actors who go to radical extremes like Christian Bale or Jarod Leto. The Method sometimes conjures up images of dark, uncontrollable forces that may work in the actor’s favor or not. Everyone seems to know it’s powerful but is it really worth all that trouble? Can’t actors just act and leave it at that?

As a teacher of the Method I can tell you it’s definitely worthwhile and I can’t imagine acting truthfully without it. When I first started walking around the boards and yelling out lines, I had no idea what I was doing, I didn’t know Upstage from Downstage, or Stage Left from Stage Right. I certainly had no idea how to manufacture realistic emotion or how to apply it in a scene. Like all newbies I’d pace around backstage, trying to whip myself into a state but my emotions were largely out of control and couldn’t be counted on from one minute to the next.

Welcome to the plight of the amateur actor, who has no training and no consistent way to work. For no matter what it looks like onstage or onscreen, professional actors are never out of the control - quite the opposite.

So how do you manage this? Well, if you’re serious than you need to learn a Method which is really nothing more than a systematic way of doing the job. Now there are several versions of the Method but the one that I studied and now teach is based on what we call “sense memory”. These are the physical sensations that surround a particular memory event from your past. When we talk about sensory things, we’re literally talking about certain sights, certain sounds, smells that trigger past events and emotions we associate with those events.

Sense memory is not a new idea but something from the early 20th Century. The French psychologist Theodule-Armand Ribot came up with the theory of Affective Memory, along with Retrograde Amnesia. A Russian stage director named Stanislavsky read this work, which led to his experiments with actors and memory in Moscow. This resulted in a new “system” of acting based on what they called the “Emotional Recall”. Affective Memory, sense memory and the Emotional Recall are all closely related, especially from an acting point of view. The Russian system eventually traveled to the U.S., where it was adapted by Lee Strasberg and the Actor’s Studio, which is where the American Method was born.

Great. Now that we know where it came from, how does this Sense Memory work? Well, it actually works rather simply. The Method tells us that all human experience is recorded up in our skulls, in our personal hard-drive, so to speak. If an actor wants to access these memories and the emotions that go along with them, they have to learn how to “trick” the memory and bring it to life. This is where the “sensory” part comes in and while it’s a simple trick, it’s one that requires practice to do it well.

All of us have five senses and this is where Method students begin their work and start with a simple, sensory object. Now the object itself can be many things but it’s best if it has some kind of natural texture like a wool sweater or a hat. It can also be a piece of jewelry like a ring or watch. The best kind of sensory object is from childhood, as we tend to imbue these objects with real emotional energy. The only no-no is that it can’t be synthetic, no plastic, as these things tend to be lifeless and have no vibrations the actor can work with.

Now the actor takes the object and explores it in sensory detail. What does it look like? What does it feel like to the touch? What is its smell? Sound? Taste? And it’s very important that the actor do these things in real detail, it can’t be done in any sort of casual way. The actor has to take their time and explore the object, as well as be open to any sort of images or associations the object brings up for them. Sometimes these things come up right away and sometimes it takes a little while but they will come. This is why I prefer the object be something from childhood as these things tend to be loaded with emotional energy. Because we as people, not just actors, carry around an enormous number of memories on our hard drive, more than any of us realize until we begin to do this work.

After the actor has explored the object in as much sensory detail as they can, they put the object aside for the next part of the exercise. Now they have a clear sense memory of the object and I tell them to recreate it, in a sensory way, right out of nothing, right out of thin air. When they do this, it’s important that they do this strictly for themselves, there’s nothing about showing or indicating the object for anybody else. It’s just for the actor, they need to make as real as they can but only for themselves.

Once the actor can create a sensory object in detail for themselves, then they’re ready to do the same with more complex things, like people and places. These are one of the Method actors most basic tools, these sensory things that have personal value and inspire personal emotions that the actor can use in their work. Of course, to the audience these things are invisible but the effect it has on the actor is quite clear. This is one of the paradoxes of acting, for if a thing is real for the actor, it will be real for those watching the actor.

When the actor has a particular emotional need, they create sensory elements that inspire an emotion in themselves that approximates that need. It can be a person, a place, a piece of remembered music or a combination of them. When they have all that going for themselves, they just pick it up and drop it onto whoever or whatever they’re working with in real life. We call this “working with substitutions” and it’s very effective.

So next time you see a Method actor conjuring up some magic on the screen, remember what it’s really all about. Your friends might be amazed by the magician but you’ll know it’s all emotional sleight-of-hand.

Want learn more about Sense Memory and working with a Sensory Person?

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