Memory vs. Imagination: Which Approach Works Best?

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  • Memory vs. Imagination: Which Approach Works Best?

    Actors have many different devices for achieving magic

    (By Tonya Tannenbaum)

    (Photo: Ben Sweet/Unsplash)

    How should an actor work-up the emotions needed to perform a scene that involves deep emotional pain? How does an actor genuinely feel what their character should feel in the scene?

  • If you were taught anything about Method Acting in school or your acting class, then surely you were taught the concept of Affective Memory. The technique involves drawing from your own personal experiences and using them in your performance, as your character faces similar circumstances.  It’s a concept that was taught, most notably, by Lee Strasberg:

    “The two areas of discovery that were of primary importance in my work at the Actors Studio and in my private classes were improvisation and affective memory. It is finally by using these techniques that the actor can express the appropriate emotions demanded of the character.”

    (Lee Strasberg)

    This approach was embraced by many talented actors, including Marlon Brando:

  • (Marlon Brando)

    “It [Method Acting] made me a real actor. The idea is you learn to use everything that happened in your life and you learn to use it in creating the character you’re working on. You learn how to dig into your unconscious and make use of every experience you’ve ever had.”

    (Marlon Brando)


    But it is also a concept the was rejected by many other actors and drama theorists, such as Stella Adler.

    “The actor cannot afford to look only to his own life for all his material nor pull strictly from his own experience to find his acting choices and feelings.”

    (Stella Adler) 

    Adler and others believed there was a better way: using your imagination to fill in the details of your character’s life; deriving the connection to your character’s feelings and emotions from that imaginative process:

  • (Stella Adler)

    “Don’t use your conscious past. Use your creative imagination to create a past that belongs to your character. I don’t want you to be stuck with your own life. It’s too little.”

    (Stella Adler)

    The friction between these two approaches is what led to friction between these two former colleagues, Stella Alder and Lee Strasberg. It’s ultimately what led to the dissolution of their acting company, Group Theatre, perhaps the most influential theatre company in history.

    So, which approach works best: drawing from personal memories or using your imagination?

    The answer is that there really is no right or wrong way. You can use affective memory or imagination or, perhaps, a combination of the two.

    What works for one actor may be all wrong for you. And what might work for you in one role may prove to be ineffective in the next role you take on.

    Point being: you’ve got options! That’s one of the best things about being a true artist and actor. You’ve got many different devices for achieving magic. To put it another way: you’ve got many different colors to use to paint your Mona Lisa.

    Use all of them, as needed.

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