How to Use Sense Memory in Acting
The use of sense memory exercises allows the actor to experience an honest reaction to a made up scene. Instead of working from the outside in, the actor using sense memory learns to work from the inside-out, re-creating the experience of touch, sound, vision, taste and smell from a particular trigger memory that corresponds with the scene being played. Through a series of exercises, the actor learns to use the body’s memory of the senses to connect himself to situations in a scene. This helps to make each performance individual and realistic and it can allow the actor to experience true emotions that are connected to the sense memory of a place, time, event or thing.
Sit or lie down in a comfortable position, either in a chair or on a mat on the floor. Breathe deeply and feel yourself relax with each exhalation.
Use any relaxation technique you wish—tensing and releasing the muscles, lowering yourself one vertebrae at a time to the floor and raising yourself back up slowly—come to a point of near complete relaxation as you breathe.
Imagine a specific object from your home—something you see every day, like your coffee mug, toothbrush or cereal bowl.
Recreate the item in detail, sense by sense. First, visualize every single detail about it—how big is it? What color is it? Is there artwork or are there designs on it? Does it have a crack in it? Is it clean, or dirty?
Imagine holding the object in your hand. Recreate the experience of touching it. How heavy is it? Is it cold, warm, hot? Is it rough or smooth in texture? Is it wet, or dry? Sticky, or clean? Sharp, or dull?
Imagine what it would taste like if your tongue were to touch it. Is it ceramic-tasting? Metallic? Sweet? Sour? Bitter?
Think further about the details surrounding the object. What do you hear when holding this object? Do you hear the sound of a spoon tapping against the edges of a bowl? Running water trickling over your toothbrush? Does your cup make a thud sound when you place it on the table? Recreate, in your mind, the sounds associated with your item.
Imagine the smell of your object. If it is a cup of coffee, does it smell bitter, or sweet? Does your bowl smell like cereal, or dishwashing detergent? Does your toothbrush smell like minty toothpaste?
Think of an object that would have an emotional memory for you—perhaps a flower that looks like the type you placed on your friend’s coffin at a funeral. If you are looking for a happy memory, think of the texture of your kitty’s fur or the way it felt to bounce a basketball across the court during a winning game. Do your sensory exercise using that particular object as your focus and learn to recall it completely so that the sense memory of it can be accessed at will when you are in a scene onstage. The trick is to have a number of strong sensory images that you can draw upon in any scene. You do not want to have to “do the work” onstage. The work is done as preparation so that once you are in the scene the reactions are real and automatically triggered by your sense memory.
Tips & Warnings
For the most consistent results, use memories that are at least six years old. They tend to be more fixed emotionally and your mind is not as connected to them, making it easier to disconnect from the thinking process surrounding the memory and focus instead on the sensory element.
Once you are able to reconnect consistently with the sensory experiences at will and with reasonably predictable consequences, you may use this technique as a method for creating a character onstage.
Never become so immersed in a sense memory that you get lost in your character’s reality. You need to have an objectivity at all times when you are on stage so that you remain responsible to your fellow actors. The sensory exercises are a tool to help you “get” to where you need to go. Do the work outside of the scene and you should have access to what you need when you are on stage.