The intensive discipline incorporates Strasberg’s application of sense memory training in developing the actor’s ability to produce specific “states-of-being,” or emotional, physical, mental and spiritual conditions.
The actor then learns how to speak, move and behave on unconscious impulse through these states-of-being. The problem then becomes how to develop the attributes and life experience of the character to such an extent that the unconscious impulses discovered during the exercises will manifest themselves in behavior that is truthful and organic. This must be accomplished not just in relation to the actor’s life experience, but also must be revelatory of the character’s experience, no matter how different from that of the actor.
It is principally in dealing with the problem of character that most techniques that purport to use Stanislavski’s principles fall short. It is not adequate to merely have the ability to produce various emotional states at will. Many actors, in fact, stop their training at the point at which they acquire this ability. These actors typically become self-indulgent and self-serving, not bothering to serve the specific requirements of the play. The particular level of reality of the play must be discovered, with the help of the director and designers. This is true whether the piece in question is naturalistic, classic, farcical, serious, romantic or absurd.
The principle elements of the training are:
Every muscle group of the head, face body and respiratory system must be trained to be free of tension. The actor must learn to identify the subtlest tension anywhere in their instrument (body), so he or she can instantly locate physical and emotional blocks. Of particular importance are muscles of the face, brow, jaw, larynx, neck, shoulders, spine, wrists, hips and feet. Breathing technique is emphasized throughout the exercise. Flexibility stretching is incorporated for the neck, shoulders, chest (most actors do not have sufficient flexibility in the upper torso), pelvis and feet. The actor vocalizes deep, open sounds from the diaphragm when tension or anxiety is encountered. Occasionally the actor releases strong emotions locked in blocked muscles, particularly from the shoulders and upper back. The exercise initially takes about 90 minutes, then is progressively shortened as the musculature is trained, until full relaxation can be achieved in about 20 minutes.
This technique achieves several positive objectives. The actor learns to breathe correctly and powerfully. Unintended tension, anxiety or physical or emotional distress can cause the actor’s breathing to become shallow and sporadic. This blocks the natural flow of physical and emotional impulses and their expression, limiting the actor’s creative state. Even when playing a tense, neurotic or emotionally blocked character, the actor must start with a base of total relaxation, then construct the specific neuroses and tensions of the character, just as a painter starts with a blank canvass. The actor also learns to feel and express impulse from all parts of the body, attaining far more potential for unique and creative expression. Because of the length and intensity of the exercise, powers of concentration develop. The actor begins to understand experientially the principle of “line-through,” of continuing an emotional and physical state-of-being through time and space without self-consciously disconnecting or monitoring the performance. The exercise also greatly relieves performance anxiety, establishes discipline and refreshes the creative spirit.
• Sense Memory:
Human beings have sense memories every day. When someone offers a sour candy, the mouth puckers just by looking at the candy. The sight of a face in a crowd reminds you of someone from your past, engendering a flood of memories that transform your physical and emotional state of being. Cleaning out a long neglected drawer full of old letters and objects can send a person through a succession of varied emotions. Picking up a tennis racket can instantly give a middle-aged body the sensation of youthful vigor. Hearing an old song, smelling the sea, returning to the town or the house you grew up in, all of these experiences can effect a change in a person’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual condition.
The actor develops skill in using sense memory through a cycle of exercises.
The first several exercises are quite simple. They serve to establish concentration and develop the capacity for experiencing sensory transformations. The exercises then increase in complexity until the actor can experience four or more sense memories simultaneously and still be able to function on stage in front of an audience.
After the actor achieves a basic competency in sense memory, he or she must learn to add expressive modes while performing the exercise. These are usually in the form of monologues, daily activities or songs. The actor learns to color their physical and vocal expression with the condition attained through use of the sense memory, or combination of sense memories. For instance, an actor might speak Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be…” while experiencing a severe ice storm, drinking a lot of Vodka, being tickled, sitting in a steam bath, having a terrible headache, or smelling the hair of his or her first lover. In each case the expression of Shakespeare’s lines will be different. The actor learns to design combinations of sense memories that will be appropriate for a particular character’s differing conditions at various points in the play. After working with sense memory for some years, the actor’s instrument will start to unconsciously select sense memories for a particular character. These exercises also serve to break typical and cliched patterns of speaking, since the actor must vocalize through the specific physical and emotional condition achieved instead of with a predetermined and therefore artificial emphasis. The actor must not know how he or she will say the line. It must be spontaneous and unanticipated, as in life. If the underlying conditions and circumstances are operating effectively, the line will be spoken logically, expressively and dynamically.