Most people, actors or not, I’d venture to guess, are familiar with the basic idea of emotional memory: an actor tries to relive an episode from his or her own life in order to conjure the emotional state called for in a scene or even a moment.
It’s an idea that’s fairly simple to grasp, and seems intuitively appealing: why shouldn’t the actor be able to make use of her own experiences in realizing the emotional life of the role? And in fact it became the basis of the Method, as evangelized by Lee Strasberg.
One reason, articulated by Stanislavsky and by Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner, is that the emotional memory takes the actor out of the present moment of the scene he is attempting to play. If he is focused on something that happened years ago, he is not relating to the actors he is in the scene with. Actors everywhere understand that it’s important to be in the moment, and so this explanation of why emotional memory is problematic carries some weight.
I think there is another, very important reason that emotional memory is problematic. And that is its superficiality. Let me explain.
We’ve all had the experience of having a fight with someone close to us. When we’re in the throes of the fight, we can feel righteous anger coursing through us: this person has failed us in some absolutely egregious way, and the anger we feel is vigorous, often overwhelming.
Then, time passes. Some hours. A day. A few days. A week. A month. We begin to feel something else towards this person: a mixture of regret at having fought, sadness at feeling disconnected, and some measure of tenderness towards the person in question.
Now, if that that moment, someone said to us, “Well, what about the anger? What happened to that?”, we would likely just shrug our shoulders and say “I was just mad. It passed.” And then if we’re asked, “So which is the truer, deeper reflection of how you really feel about this person, the anger or the emotions you’re feeling now?”, we would almost certainly say the feelings we are feeling now are truer and deeper. And I think we can recognize that the emotions we are feeling now, some distance from the fight, don’t just feel truer and deeper because we happen to be feeling them now: they are our deepest, truest feelings about the person in question.
So what we can see here is that our emotional life has two layers, or it appears to at least: one, the in-the-moment, transient emotional states that arise and vanish in the rough-and-tumble of a day in the life. And then the deeper layer, where we can sense the true significance that people have for us, their true importance for us as ongoing partners in the pursuit of connection and satisfaction.
Emotional memory deals only with the surface emotional states: I’m mad, I’m joyful, I’m worried, I’m confused, etc. It doesn’t touch the deeper layer that is the source of feeling in the superficial layer. We get mad at someone BECAUSE they are someone we count on and have been supported by in the past, but in THIS moment he or she is failing to have our back or letting us down or betraying us, etc.
The deeper layer is what is known by psychologists as attachment. We become attached to people as ongoing sources of good stuff in our lives. We can have a range of emotions about someone in any given encounter, but none of that changes deeper way in which we recognize them as important sources of value for us.
The approach to acting that I teach attempts to bring the actor into connection with the deep attachment to the partner. This attachment finds expression through need, or what we call underlying objective. The actor attempts to be in touch with the deep need for connection that is the basis of the attachment. Then, as the partner is encountered in the scene, and sh*t goes down in the crucible of encounter, a whole host of feelings can arise and transform from moment to moment in response to those developments, and they arise organically from the deep sense of connection we have in the relationships in our lives.
With emotional memory, the actor has to come up with one memory for one section of the scene where jealousy is called for, and another where fear is called for, and another where arousal is called for, etc. This is an entirely inorganic process, where the actor is manipulating her own emotional state based on what she thinks the scene should look like, as considered from the perspective of the observer. It’s not a performance that arises organically from the give and take with the partner or from a connection to the essence of the relationship itself.
Which brings us to a basic truth about drama: it’s about what happens between people, not about what happens inside the actor. Emotional memory focuses entirely on what happens inside the actor, and disregards relationship as an essential, defining component of drama.
There may be specific kinds of challenges for which emotional memory is useful (“He enters, weeping.”), but as the basis of an actor’s process, it misses the mark. Entirely.