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Sense Memory Activities


Sense Memory Acting Activities  (Also adapted from an article from the "Actor's Atelier" and work with William Espers, David Man, and the Herbert Berghof Studio in NYC.

1.  Imagine for a moment you are an actor in a movie that takes place at the North Pole, but the actual scene you are doing is filming inside the studio.   You are involved in a scene in which you have been stranded miles from civilization, and have little in the way of protective clothing.  You find a small shelter between some rocks. 

The director wants a couple of shots of you huddled between the rocks to show how miserably cold you are.   One of the shots is a close-up. 

The conventional actor can "play" this scene by indicating the cold in the usual way; shivering, wrapping his arms around himself, blowing his breath into his freezing hands to warm them up, etc.  But you want to create the reality of the cold in stark detail.  

To complicate your work, the studio lights are hot.  The makeup artist visits you frequently to wipe the perspiration from your face, and touch up your melting makeup, and powder you. 

But even before the director calls "Action!", you have already begun creating the cold.  You are sensorally recalling how the freezing cold affects you, because you have done this work as an exercise.  You know that the cold affects the tip of your nose, and edges of your ears first.   You know that your lips get numb quickly, and your fingers get stiff, and hard to move.  You know that if you place your hands under your armpits, or down your pants and between your legs at the crotch, it will warm them up.  You can feel your toes numbing.  You warm your hands under your armpits, and place them momentarily over your ears, then back under your arms.

By doing the sensory exploration of  how cold affects you, you have created for the director your own unique response to the cold.  No other actor can imitate you.  It's your reality, and we, the spectator, believe you.

 2.   Sense memory work only uses the senses: What do I see? What do I hear? What do I taste? What do I feel? It is based on recall and work with people, places, objects, that go back at least 7 years into our past to keep from manipulating our memories with the conscious mind.

For instance, if I was working on my 2nd grade teacher I would ask myself, Can I see her hair? The dress she is wearing? The chain on her glasses? Can I hear the sound of her voice? The sounds around her? The necklace that she is wearing? What is the room like? And keep doing so until it becomes a mantra where I am so into the mundaneness of what I see, taste, touch, and smell that the memories of who I was as a seven year old boy in her presence starts to come – and that brings the mood/the feeling of that time with it.

Everybody does it individually at the same time. Everybody is working on what they are working on (first flu, first apartment, car, etc). Nobody knows what anybody else is working on. If you are sitting in the corner sobbing – chances are you are working on a person but Joe does not need to know. It is not his business. And he doesn’t need to know in order for it to work. You’re relearning how to take care of you. And need no guru other than your own subconscious.

 3.  One of my favorite sensory exercises is creating a "place" my parents took me to when I was a young child.  It's a stream in the country, where my dad liked to fish.  

When I start sensorally creating a particular visual aspect of the stream, "seeing" the cliffs that rise above it, and the "dragon flies" swarming about, and the water spiders darting to and fro, and the tadpoles and birds and clearness of the water, and cornfields and woods above the cliffs, and dozens of other details my sense of sight can remember when I am relaxed  in a chair, something emotional happens to me.

Or when I "feel" the hot summer air on my young skin, and "smell" the stream and the vegetation, or "hear" the wind and the horseflies buzzing past my ear, or "taste" the water of the stream on my lips while dipping into it and the fresh fish Dad caught and Mom cooked over the open fire, I am totally transported to that place, which usually results in an emotional response:  melancholy, or sadness. 

I do not anticipate this response from that exercise.  In fact, I was never melancholy or sad when I was actually at that place.  I was usually very happy, unless I saw a snake or was stung by a bee. 

But sensorally creating that particular place at this time in my life produces a quite different emotional experience from that of the original experience. 

Why?  I can only guess.  Since that time, Mom and Dad divorced, and much later Mom died.  Maybe going back to that place triggers sadness that the perfect world of the nine year old boy that was me then is missed, and longed for now. 

Does it matter why?  No.  What matters is that by creating that particular place sensorally, I have an honest emotional response, and I can use that exercise to produce the same emotional response on stage or in front of a camera.  And that makes me happy!  

4.  Make groups of 3 or 4. Together you will set the table for breakfast.

In this kind of acting exercises sense memory is about all 5 senses. Preparation: one table and as many chairs as their are in your group. One by one you put on the table what you need. But only imaginary! You have to pretend!  The first one puts on the tablecloth. You tell the others out loud what you are doing. - "I put the tablecloth on the table".  The next person can bring in the plates. You tell the others: - "I put one plate here, here (here) and mine, over here".Now everyone knows where the plates are and where one person sits.  The next person brings on the cutlery, in the same way the plates were brought on.  The third brings cups one by one and specifies his seating.  Table for four? There is only one spot left so you know where you will sit. You start bringing in breakfast. Take turns bringing in bread, cereal, milk, fruit, butter, eggs, spreads etcetera. Make sure you know where everything is put!Watch out for things that are already on the table! The can of milk will fall when put on the bread! Build your imaginary breakfast table.  All set? Satisfied?  Time to eat breakfast. Everything is there. Nobody needs to leave the table anymore. Something missing? Too bad, if it is not on the table you forgot to buy it.  You can enjoy your breakfast together. Try to use as many products as there are on the table. In your conversation do not ASK where the butter is.  Imagine you can see it all!

 5.  Other Ideas:  Arrival at school, first day of school some memorable year, first date,

memorable holidays, sport practice, brushing teeth,  practicing a sport you love, etc.