“An actor’s job is to “feel on cue.””
Every great actor uses their own lives to the full, and constantly exercises their emotional muscles.
One of the most daunting and challenging parts of being an actor is portraying extreme emotions on cue. In auditions, on stage and on screen we are called upon to cry for imaginary relatives, grieve the breakdown of imaginary relationships or get angry at imaginary betrayals.
Most of us use emotional recall from our own lives to achieve as close as possible to how our character might behave. We recollect in our minds heartbreaks, losses or betrayals in our own past lives, and try to conjure the emotions in our performances.
Using memories in this way does not always produce authentic performances, though. It is very difficult to recreate a memory. Effective and believable emotional recall in performance is only achieved through one of the core elements of the Method, Sense Memory.
What is Sense Memory?
“Everything we perceive, interpret, and ultimately feel in life is filtered through our five senses”
Everything we experience in our day to day lives – sounds, smells, feelings, sensations, tastes – is stored in our subconscious using sense memory. These dormant sensual memories, when exercised effectively by the Method actor, can act as triggers to effectively recall emotions.
Sense memory can help to release certain emotions that are locked away. It is the act of revisiting a single image or sense memory to unlock the emotions that surrounded it.
For example – imagine your character is holding vigil at the bedside of a dying relative. You might want to use your own experiences of hospitals, death and grief to inform your performance. Rather than trying to conjure directly the emotional journey that you went on, try to focus on a single sense memory – a ticking clock in the hospital for example, or the sound of the life support machine.
Or maybe your character is engaged in a bitter argument with their partner over a betrayal. Have you ever has a similar argument? What do you remember of the scene? A television in the background? The smell of a meal cooking? A particular song?
Sense memory is at the core of acting. If you can master it, you will be able to create much more authentic, wide and powerful performances. Practice conjuring emotions through sense memory, you will be surprised by the results!
It is important to relax mentally and physically before starting any sense memory exercise. You must clear the space necessary for a response to a sense memory before you begin with the exercise.
Start with a simple sense memory, and with each exercise build on the complexity until you have a spectrum of emotions in the bank. Soon, it will become second nature to use sense memory in your acting.
Sense memory, when mastered, is one of the most powerful tools in the method actor’s arsenal.