Drawing on the emotions I experienced—for example, when my mother died—to create a role is sick and schizophrenic. If that is acting, I don’t want to do it. – Stella Adler
Affective memory has always had its critics. We’ve covered several times how powerful a tool it is for actors, and how useful – but it’s time we addressed how dangerous it can be. Also known as “emotional memory,” affective memory is the use of your past experiences to help you emotionally connect to the experiences of your character.
It sounds straightforward. However, affective memory is a tricky tool to master, and then a dangerous one. You could be drawing on a positive memory, but often affective memory is acting with your scars; using a painful or upsetting past experience to fully connect to a character’s grief or anger. It’s used this way more than not because – let’s face it, actors – tears are harder to fake than smiles.
You might use affective memory while playing the role of Ophelia in Hamlet, for example. She has a suicidal fate, and connecting to that level of depression means delving into memories that could trigger a very real depression in you.
Dangerous effects of affective memory can include:
- Anxiety attacks
- Panic attacks
- Substance abuse
How to Use Affective Memory
On your first few attempts you should have a trained instructor with you. Most method acting teachers should be qualified to lead an affective memory session. They will start with relaxation, a method acting technique that prepares the body and mind for the emotions to which they’re about to be exposed.
You begin by sitting in an armless chair with all your limbs hanging loosely at your sides. Move each joint and limb in circles, shaking out all tension. Do the same with your head and neck. You can also grunt or yell to release inner tension. If this sounds confusing – or like it couldn’t possibly take the recommended twenty minutes – then that’s all the more reason to make sure you have an instructor present.
Once you’re relaxed, you should be ready to delve into your memories. Once you have chosen an appropriate memory to explore, you must then go through every detail of every moment looking for your emotional release object. This is done by using your sense memory.
When you’ve found the exact moment in your memory that floods you with the right emotion, you’ve finished the exercise. You can see where the danger arises; flooding yourself with a negative emotion could be mentally damaging. Relaxing and ridding your body of tension can help you to maintain emotional control.
How to Stay Safe
The main proponent of affective memory – Lee Strasberg – recommends that actors only use memories that are at least seven years old. While this is no guarantee of safety, it certainly improves your chances of avoiding the main dangers of affective memory.
Strasberg also stresses that when exercising affective memory, actors should not force emotion. The exercise should focus on sense memory; on recalling the sound, smell, sight, taste, and feel of every element in the memory. Letting the emotion come via one of these senses is more organic, and less harmful. It’s also through the specific details of sense memory that affective memory works best.
When recalling a memory of anger – maybe you were cheated out of a prize – try to remember in detail the room you felt that emotion in. Where were you standing? Who spoke the words that angered you? What were those words? By focusing on everything around the emotion instead of the emotion itself you can generate a new version of it in the present, free of the same level of trauma.
Another way to use affective memory safely is to incorporate the techniques of other schools. Here at Brian Timoney we mostly teach Strasberg’s method, but are not averse to the lessons Adler and Sanford Meisner have to offer. One such lesson is the value of imagination as a supplement to memory.
The actor and teacher Michael Chekhov is the best example of how imagination can improve the quality and safety of affective memory. During an exercise as a student he drew on the memory of his father’s funeral so effectively that Stanislavski himself was floored by the young man’s raw power. It turned out that Chekhov’s father was alive and well; the power came from his imagination.
If you have the kind of mind that’s capable of this alternative, I recommend you use it for those darker pieces.
Avoiding the Dangers of Affective Memory
Avoid using the affective memory too frequently, or remaining in your memory for a long period of time. You don’t need to re-live a horrible experience, only recall the base emotion that went with it (although we recommend not using truly damaging experiences).
Do you think you have a good enough memory to be a great method actor? We take only the most driven students. If you’re ready for a challenge – and the success that goes with it – then why not apply for our Ultimate Acting Programme?