For actors, giving a genuine and impactful performance is the holy grail. We want to impact our audiences and tell the story in the most truthful and entertaining way possible, to serve the script and serve the audience. To do this we must go beyond simply learning the lines and find ways of getting closer to the character. There are many acting techniques that actors like to use, one of the most famous being “Emotional Memory.”
Emotional Memory, also known as Affective Memory, is an acting technique founded by Konstantin Stanislavski where the actor draws upon their own personal emotions and experiences to authentically portray the emotions of the character.
Emotional memory, whilst being the most well-known acting technique is also extremely controversial. In this blog post, we’ll be covering why, how to use it, whether you should use it, and much more.
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Should You Use Emotional Memory?
Konstantin Stanislavski, founder of emotional memory eventually abandoned the technique after coming to the conclusion that using personal and highly emotional memories to guide performance created inconsistent acting. But does that mean that we shouldn’t use the technique?
Personally, I like emotional memory, but I definitely don’t use it all the time. If you find emotional memory to be a useful technique, and it doesn’t negatively affect those around you, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t use it. There are many techniques that actors use, some may work for you and some may not.
Lee Strasberg, a well known acting practitioner, later made the technique a central part of what is now known as The Method. There are many amazing actors that have trained in this technique including Alec Baldwin, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johanson, Miles Teller, Will Arnet, Angelina Jolie & Marilyn Monroe.
How To Use Emotional Memory
Emotional memory is a simple concept, but how do you put it into practice in a way that is most effective? Here are 5 steps that you can follow when first using emotional memory:
1. Analyse the Character’s Emotions
Before we utilise emotional memory, we need to read the scene and analyse the character’s emotions. Try looking on a deeper level and remember that emotion is complicated and subtext is important. Just because a character is sad, it doesn’t mean they’ll cry. Here are some questions you may want to ask to provide clarity on the scene:
- What are the characters given circumstances?
- What is the character going through in the scene?
- How does the character feel within the scene?
- What is the subtext?
Read my blog post on subtext in acting to learn everything there is to know about subtext, how to find it in a scene, how to use it and why it’s so important.
2. Find Emotional Similarities
Once you understand the scene and what the character is experiencing, try to search for common ground between your own life experiences and your character’s emotions. If you’ve experienced the exact scenario that the character is going through, that’s great.
If not, think of times you had the same emotional reaction to something. For example, if your character has lost their job but you’ve never lost your job, perhaps there was a time that you felt hopeless or unsure how you’d make ends meet.
3. Recall The Memory
Once you have a memory that you want to use, try to remember it in as much detail as you possibly can. Lee Strasberg encouraged actors to think about the senses they may have experienced within that memory as it allows us to be brought back to that moment.
Go through each of these senses and try to recall what you experienced within that memory. There will usually be at least one sense that brings the memory flooding back. Whether that be a specific object, smell or sound, etc within the memory.
4. Use Substitution To Bridge The Gap
Once you’ve found the trigger that brings this memory and its emotion flooding back, you can use this within a scene to tap into that emotion. The way you do this will depend on what works for you as well as what trigger you’ve found.
The goal is to substitute aspects of that memory into the scene in a way that connects you to the character, there’s no use in experiencing an emotion if it brings you out of the scene, so be sure to merge your emotional memory with the character’s experiences within the scene.
If your trigger is an object that you see, try to superimpose that memory onto another object within the scene so that a prop, piece of furniture, or character has the same impact. If it’s a smell or sound, you’ll want to use your imagination to experience that sound or smell even when it’s not there.
5. Give Yourself Time To Cooldown Afterwards
Emotional memory can be a very powerful technique when used correctly. But using very real emotion in your acting, and allowing those emotions to flood back can seem drowning. That’s why I always suggest that actors give themselves time to cool down and acclimate back to reality after using emotional memory.
You may feel like you’re okay and don’t need to give yourself time to cool down. But in my experience, it’s always better to anyway. I remember a specific time when I first started using this technique, I came home and sat in my room feeling helpless. Be safe, and give yourself time to acclimate back to reality.
Staying Safe When Using Real Memories
As you now know, this technique can be difficult to deal with. For that reason, it’s important that you put the relevant precautions in place to ensure you’re staying safe.
1. Learn with a Trained Instructor
It’s usually recommended, when first using this technique, that you do so with an instructor that is well-versed in emotional memory so that you’re guided in and out of the experience. You shouldn’t have to go through it alone, atleast until you know what you’re doing.
Doing research into your training options and who you’re training with is vital, trust is extremely important when it comes to acting and classes. For valuable guidance, check out our detailed blog post about how to choose a drama school.
2. Use Memories That Are More Than 7 Years Old
When Lee Strasberg started using this technique, he wanted to make sure it was safe to use. For that reason, he suggested that actors never use memories that are less than 7 years old as they’re too fresh and too raw to use without danger and that they will also result in inconsistent performances.
3. Leave The Character At The Door
My acting teacher once told me, “When you leave the room, leave the character at the door.” That’s great advice. Sometimes when we engage in highly emotional performances, it’s mentally exhausting, and it’s all too easy to take that home with you.
But that’s not healthy for yourself or the people around you. Try not to take the weight of the role home with you and when you leave the room, leave the character at the door.
An Alternative to Emotional Memory
If emotional memory doesn’t work for you, or you’d rather not use your own memories and emotional experiences within your performance (that’s totally fine by the way), there is another option that you can use that can lead to performances that are just as powerful and (according to Stanislavski) arguably more consistent.
The Magic If
The Magic If was a technique founded by Stanislavski after he abandoned emotional memory due to his opinion that it was too inconsistent to use on demand.
Rather than using our own highly emotional experiences to guide our performance, the magic if asks us to use our imagination to think about what we’d do and how we’d react if we were to experience something meaning that we never have to actually experience that thing.
If you’d like to learn more about the magic if, I’d suggest reading my other post on the subject: The Magic If: What It Is and How to Apply It