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  • Writer's pictureGlenn English

"Working With a Sensory Person"

An actor’s training is a cumulative thing, regardless of the discipline, be it Method or Meisner. Every element of your training has inherent value, as it transforms you from the Novice actor, to the Journeyman actor and eventually to being a Master of your craft. It’s all building blocks in that sense and they all proceed from a series of foundational exercises that you learn in the early part of your training. As you advance, these things are internalized and as time passes they become second nature.

Now not all exercises carry equal weight with every actor, we all don’t work in the same way, even if we had the same training, which we often don’t. All seasoned actors use various combinations in their day-to-day work, though these combos change, depending on the demands of their role. That said, there are certain “cornerstone” exercises that come into play much more than others. In Method training one such cornerstone is Working with a Sensory Person. While it’s one of the intro exercises in Method training, I also consider it one of the key tools in our work, since we use it so frequently, almost in everything we do.

How so? Well, think about it. How many times have you had to work with another actor that throws the lines at you and not much else? How many times have you had to play opposite someone that doesn’t stir a single organic emotion in you? If you’re like most of us, that happens a lot more than most non-actors would realize. So what do you do about that? How do you whip up genuine emotion for a scene partner that’s totally preoccupied with their own reflection in the lens? Well, you study Method acting and learn how to work with a Sensory Person or what’s sometimes called a “Substitution”.

Now a Sensory Person is, by definition, only visible to the Method actor working with that substitution. Bear in mind, we don’t care about that aspect of it, we only care if the Substitution is appropriate and generates the level of emotion that the actor needs to achieve. The Golden Rule here is “If it’s real for the actor, it will be real for the audience”. Nothing more and nothing less. Those of us watching the scene don’t need to see or know about the Substitution, they only need to see the effect it has on the actor using it.

So how do you create a Sensory Person? If you’ve read my articles on the Sensory Object and Sensory Place, you’ll know the answer already. Step by step and detail by detail. Like the earlier examples, you always start from a model or a clue, which in this case will likely be a picture or some kind of image. You study this picture for the details and be open to what they trigger in terms of Sense Memory. What does this mean? It means the things you remember about them that struck your physical senses. How their eyes looked to you? How did their voice sound? Their breath? What did they smell like?

According to Lee Strasberg, you have a detailed sense memory of anyone important to you from your past. You only have to learn how to trick that memory and bring it to life, to experience what he called the “remembered emotion” you associate with that person. So you study the picture of your person, noting the details and whatever comes up for you by way of sense memories. Once you have the person clearly in mind, you put aside the image and recreate that person, right out of thin air. Start from the top of their body and work your way down to their feet. Now this may sound a little strange or even a little crazy in the beginning but trust me, you have lots of highly detailed sense memories on your personal hard drive. You only have to learn how to access them, which takes training and some practice, that’s all.

So what does this do for the actor? Quite a bit actually. It means that you’re not dependent on other actors, on the director or even the writer to achieve real emotions in a scene, you can do that for yourself. Anytime you want. If this sounds too good to be true, it’s not but it’s a technique that takes time to acquire. You also have to understand that you’ll be working with remembered emotion, which you also need practice dealing with. For the truth is that all of us spend a lot of time burying our feelings about a lot of different things and people. When you begin working with remembered emotions, you may discover that some of them are very powerful and that also takes getting used to.

It’s for this reason that we don’t work with anyone from your recent past, you want to work with someone that you have sense of emotional closure with. The general rule here being “no one or nothing more recent than seven years”. This is particularly important if you’re working with sense memories that are volatile or painful, you don’t want to work with anything that’s too raw. For the goal is not to just to unearth powerful emotions but real emotions that be controlled and used for the purposes of acting. Remember, this isn’t Group Therapy, it’s Acting Class and while we work with some of the same forces, our goals are quite different.

Once you have your Sensory Person worked out in detail for the first time, it will be easier and easier for you to call them up. In the beginning this takes more time and preparation but with practice, it can be done in as little as a few minutes. Keep in mind, that you’re working with a file that’s been on your personal hard drive for years. That file was never deleted, it was always there, you just forgot about it. Once it’s been relocated and you know the trick to calling it up, the effort should minimal.

Now the Substitution you’re working with has to be appropriate for the purposes of your character. That’s why all acting training involves character and scene analysis, so you know what you’re looking for. Your Sensory Person has to be someone that makes you feel the way your character is supposed to be feeling in the scene. This means that you have to layer your Substitution on top of the actor you’re playing against. I like to think of it as picking up your Substitution as if they were a transparency, walking them over and dropping them right down onto the other actor. Now the second actor is giving you all the mechanics of the scene, like the lines and the blocking but you’re playing your substitution that’s layered on your scene partner.

Does this require a little juggling? Of course it does but that’s part of the craft and hopefully the Art of acting. As your training advances, you’ll also learn how to work simultaneously with a Sensory Person, a Sensory Place and other sensory elements as well. A fully-trained actor in the Method can create an entire sensory world for themselves that’s rich in detail and highly-provocative in emotion. That’s the reason watching someone like Daniel Day Lewis or Charlize Theron is so riveting to watch in a film. They’re not just “in character” when they’re working. They’re in their own world. Remember the Golden Rule. If it’s real for the actor, it’s real for us.

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