"Working with a Sensory Place In Method Acting"
In Method Acting we do what’s called Sensory Work that deals with physical sensations connected to a particular memory event. Among actors, the shorthand term for this is called “sense memory”. When acting students begin their training, they are sometimes confused by the actual steps needed to achieve the sense memory. In my own training, years ago, I also experienced a certain amount of uncertainty about the actual procedure when approaching these exercises for the first time, so it's worth clarifying.
I like to use the analogy of a key, a locked door and a secret room beyond the door.
You should think of the sensory element as the key, which unlocks the door of the sense memory, which gives you access to the past event and the emotion associated with it.
Key (Sensory) => Door (Memory) => Room (Event) => Past Emotion
Acting teachers of this Method from Strasberg, to Schreiber, to myself, will tell you
that our every life experience is recorded on our personal hard drives (i.e. our brains) and access to these memories is fully within our grasp and not merely in some vague way but in
full color, sound, taste, touch & smell. In the past, access to these memories was largely denied to most of us except under very specific conditions, such as hypnosis.
However, actors who are fully trained in sense memory technique can also achieve these results via the procedure I’ve diagramed above. Strasberg liked to refer to these archived feelings as “remembered emotions”, as opposed to emotions that we are actively in the midst of. I personally like to think of remembered emotion as running a slightly lower current than active emotion, which has a higher charge and is, therefore, more difficult to control. When working with sense memories, the general rule is to work with nothing newer than seven years old, as those emotions tend to be too volatile.
It’s important to understand that the goal is not just to achieve genuine emotion but to achieve a degree of emotion that can be controlled by the actor in a scene. Nothing is really gained by the actor if they bring themselves to an emotional state that is beyond their ability to manipulate and use for practical purposes. You’re doing yourself no favor by turning into an emotional puddle that can’t handle lines or blocking or other actors. Now, this isn’t something that actors learn how to do their first time around, it takes time, experimentation and practice. You start with one sensory exercise and proceed through a series until you’ve mastered them all and the Method itself.
Earlier in this blog, we discussed working with a Sensory Object, so I’d like to move to the next, which is working with a Sensory Place. So what exactly does this do for you? Well, it gives the actor a detailed, specific place in which to play out the action of the scene for starters. For the truth of the matter is that actors are usually working in physical spaces that have little or nothing to do with the emotional reality of their characters or what’s happening to them in the scene. You’re in some theater or location, you’re surrounded by tech, all of this tends to be wildly distracting to an actor.
By substituting a sensory place for a black box, the Method actor has solved half their problems in one, succinct move. The Sensory Place has loads of associated experiences, emotions linked with remembered memory, all of which they can use as emotional fuel. This gives the Method actor one hell of an advantage over another, who is stuck merely pretending to be somewhere and feeling something that they're not.
All well and good but how do you do it? The first time out, I recommend working with a place from childhood, as we tend to pack a lot of emotion into these locations. It’s ideal if you start working from a photograph because that gives you a treasure map of sorts, that you can follow in terms of landmarks, which also have their own emotional payout. You start by sitting in a chair and study the photo, look at the details and see what associations come up from it. You take your time and don't rush anything because it’s all for you. It’s important to remember that there is no performance involved in doing this exercise, only what comes up for you.
While you’re studying the picture, you’ll want to pick one spot in it that really jumps out at you. It can be anything really - a tree, a car, a table, a person, it doesn’t matter. You want to look at this thing carefully because that’s going to be your starting point. Then you put the picture aside and start to begin recreating that thing as carefully as you can in sensory detail, right out of thin air. What does it look like? What does it feel like to the touch? What does it smell like? Sound like? Taste like?
Once you’ve really got that object, that thing fleshed out in sensory detail, you’re going to start looking around the rest of the place and identifying other objects from your picture. You’ll do that same exploration with all of them, in sensory detail. One by one and detail by detail. As you do this, you’ll find that all the other parts of the Sensory Place will fall in, all around you. It will take on a greater reality and in greater detail. You’ll begin to hear the Place and discover things in the place that you’ve forgotten about entirely. Often you’ll discover there is someone else in the space that was sometimes there, this can be a little unpredictable but it happens. Recreating a Sensory Place is really like working on a puzzle, the more you put together, the easier it becomes and the bigger the picture gets.
After a student has done this for the first time, we’ll sit and talk about it a little. I’ll ask them about the Place and how they felt about it? Was it a safe place? A happy place? Or would they describe it differently? Were there particular events that happened there? Were there any surprises for them in the Place? Did they see anyone they didn’t expect? If so, how did they feel about that Person?
When you first start doing this kind of work, you’ll find all sorts of things will come up. Some of them will be pleasant and some things a little less so, but all of them will be valuable to you as an actor. The key things to remember are to take your time, don’t rush and don’t force anything. Everything you need is already up in your hard drive, you just need to breathe and let it happen. It can be a little intimidating at the start but the emotional payoff can be wonderfully freeing and very helpful for an actor who is looking for a better, more honest way to act.