Emotional Memory: The Out-Dated Acting Technique

Talk to anyone who has studied drama or acting and they will almost definitely know who ‘Stanislavski’ was.

For those not in the know he is widely regarded as the father of modern, ‘realistic’ acting. One of the most widely known and famous of his techniques is something called ’emotional memory’.

Emotional memory is the technique of recalling a personal memory to evoke emotions needed to play a part- to put it simply, if you’re playing someone who has been bereaved, you think of when you were bereaved and use those memories and emotions.

On paper this sounds like an innocuous and probably affective method to use when acting, however it can produce unwanted results. In fact, Stanislavski and later practitioners moved away from it after noticing a lot of actors having serious emotional breakdowns and mental health problems after using it.

I think that emotional memory can be upsetting at best, and dangerous at worst.

It’s archaic- even its creator decided that it wasn’t great in the end… so why is one of the first techniques that we teach actors? Surely it should be amongst the last, only given to actors who have enough experience and mental understanding to deal with it.

My experiences with emotional memory aren’t great, I’ve used it in the past when I’ve been struggling to grasp an emotion. I keep a tight reign on how I feel- maybe that’s why I’ve found acting to be so hard. A couple of times it’s gone badly wrong for me.

One of the eight or so monologues that I used to do when I was acting was of ‘Annie’ from the play ‘The Gut Girls’ by Sarah Daniels. Annie talks about being sexually abused… I never used emotional memory for this. For one, because it would be far too much- that’s not something I’m comfortable exploring at all, let alone exploring it on a stage. Secondly, I found that even starting to think about it was of no help to me- I don’t know why, I just couldn’t feel anything. Instead I tried to harness the feeling of nervousness, that emotion worked for me and helped me to give a good performance.

Emotional memory is good on a small scale- little emotions- a little nervous, a little happy- those are okay. We can all conjure up harmless, every day memories that give us those emotions with little to no emotional repercussions. What worries me is how emotional memory is touted as the way to deal with anything. It’s not.

Please don’t use it unless you know what you’re doing, unless you have a good grasp of your own mental health and know really clearly how far you can push yourself. If you do then good for you… I don’t.

’til next time,

Wren x

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One thought on “Emotional Memory: The Out-Dated Acting Technique

  1. I spent four years acting and working behind the scenes in stage theater during college, and while there were many reasons why I eventually changed my major and moved toward an entirely different career path, the emotional memory aspect of Stanislavski’s teachings was definitely one of those reasons. I agree with you that it should not be used quite so readily by so many.

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