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Breaking Down Lee’s Work with David Lee Strasberg

On February 26, 2020, David Lee Strasberg paid a visit to LSTFI New York to lead a workshop on the evolution and application of his father’s work. He explains how his father left behind a tremendous legacy – the value of which lies not in its prestige, but in its wisdom. Lee sought to create a training that would both develop and preserve the art of acting, so that the loss of an actor did not mean the loss of their craft. One of the tools in The Method, David explains, is prior moment. For a character, the circumstances at hand are informed by moments and experiences that happened prior to the scene. For the actor, the same is true. While we live and work in the present, we are informed by the past – by Lee and Stanislavski, by the actors and theatre practitioners that came before us.

Sense Memory

Reading a passage of Lee’s writing, David begins the workshop with a focus on sense memory. In The Method, sense memory exercises are used to recall and reactivate sensorial experiences from life – the sharp taste of a lemon, the pain of a toothache, and so on. David explains, however, that the focus of sensory work must remain on how the exercise affects you, rather than on indicating the experience for the audience.

Take, for example, an actor working on extreme cold. If the actor is making faces to express discomfort, or shivering and rubbing their hands together, they are missing the point. Instead, the actor should concentrate on interacting with the sensation. Where on my body do I feel the cold? If I move around, can I find the sensation elsewhere? Can I feel the warmth of my breath, a prickling on my exposed neck, or a numbness in my fingers? By doing so, the sensory work allows the actor to bring reality to their performance, rather than pantomime.

Juggling Multiple Exercises

Often, an actor will use more than one sensory exercise to unlock the full reality of their character and circumstance. David explains that, while the actor can be juggling multiple exercises, only one can be worked on consciously.

“The mind can think of only one thing at a time, consciously. The other tasks are performed subconsciously. Therefore, first practice with one of the objects before adding the others. This is a general rule only too often disregarded.”

Lee Strasberg, on using multiple sensory exercises

David explains that while the human being can perform several tasks at once, he can only focus actively on one. The rest are performed subconsciously, as a result of training or habit. As actors, we must practice each exercise fully – and individually – before combining them. Through deliberate and repeated rehearsal, you can condition your responses to become unconscious, Pavlovian.

Physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov conducted an experiment in which he rang a bell immediately before feeding a dog his food. By repeating this continually, Pavlov found that, upon hearing the bell, the dog would begin to salivate even if the food had not been presented. As actors, we are able to train ourselves to experience and be affected by a sensory exercise unconsciously, which then allows us to focus consciously on another exercise. It is this phenomenon that led Lee to say:

“I am much more interested in Pavlov than in Freud.”

Lee Strasberg

David notes that much of the rehearsal required to reach this level of work must happen on your own. While in theatre, there is often an extensive rehearsal process before a production, the same amount of effort should also be applied to on-camera work. Whether preparing for film, television, or an audition, you must find time at home to experiment with and rehearse your relaxation and sensory.

Affective Memory

“Every human being contains within himself the keys on which to play all types of emotional experience. The means by which we are able to avail ourselves of this experience of ours is through the process of emotional memory, or memory of experience.”

Lee Strasberg

This, in the words of Lee Strasberg, is the core of the affective memory exercise. When using an affective memory, the actor selects an event from their life, an event that is “sufficiently unusual to have made an impression on you”. The actor then focuses, not on the emotion they experienced during said event, but on the sensorial experience of it.

 “Make no effort to capture the emotion itself, but only the object and event that caused it”. 

Lee Strasberg

Misconception of Affective Memory

As with much of Lee’s work, the affective memory is often misunderstood or misused. The greatest misconceptions surrounding the affective memory exercise are as follows:

The affective memory must be dramatic. Actors often believe that an emotional memory must induce sadness or anger, or that the exercise requires them to re-experience trauma. On the contrary, an affective memory can recall any emotion, including those of joy, excitement, and humor. Positive emotions are just as valuable to the actor as are negative ones.

The affective memory should be recent. Experiences we have encountered more recently often feel “fresher” and thus more likely to be effective when incorporated in our work. However, The Method insists on a seven year rule, asking actors to only recall affective memories that happened at least seven years ago. This rule is not an issue of safety, and recalling a more recent memory is not considered harmful. However, the actor’s response to a more recent memory is impossible to predict and more likely to be inconsistent. David explains that if a memory from seven years ago works for you today, it will work for the rest of your life.

The affective memory will always look the same. All too often, an actor employs an affective memory in search of a particular manifestation of emotion, such as tears. Similarly, if the actor experiences a particular manifestation once, they may then feel pressured to repeat this experience each time. However, in doing so, the actor loses their concentration on the object of the exercise and will not experience the emotion. Lee explains, “Remember that the emotion will always appear, but it may not look the same”.

In order to avoid this problem of anticipation, David emphasizes the need to always start from scratch. He explains that an affective memory is like meditation. By the end of your meditation, however you may practice it, you find a blissful, zen place. However, the next time you mediate, you cannot simply jump right to that zen place. You have to start from the beginning, each time, with no expectation.

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