Saturday, December 3, 2011

Emotional Memory - Intro

Roy Lichtenstein - Happy Tears
Each and every human being possesses what has been termed "emotional memory".
Emotional memory is the ability we all have to remember a past event - usually an emotion-filled one - and be emotionally affected by it, just as if the event were happening in the exact moment we are remembering it.

One of the challenges all serious actors face is portraying true feelings either on stage or camera, that is during a fictitious event. As a matter of fact, the real problem is not the mere creation of an emotion; that is a relatively easy goal to accomplish. What's more complex is the recreation of that same emotion over and over again, eight times a week, or take after take.
According to Strasberg's experience, only 15% of the people are able to consciously recreate an emotion.

The term consciously introduces us by antithesis to the psychological concept of unconscious: the ability to recreate the conditions for a specific emotional reaction can only be achieved through intense work in deep connection with the unconscious side of our psyche, according to Lee Strasberg himself.
Strasberg conceived a specific set of training techniques aimed at preparing the actors' 'memory' to the most difficult and delicate one: the emotional memory exercise.

This post is a mere introduction to a serious problem not only actors have to face; this is a task we are all brought to deal with. We, as individuals who stand upon and are still affected by the remembrance of the most meaningful events of our life, must take responsibility over their effects on us. Not just as actors, but as human beings, as individual members of society, we must learn to deal with all that we go through. Not only our success on the stage and in film is at stake, but our individual psychic balance too - and, consequently, that of the entire society.

For now, I hope this post can contribute in stirring questions like, "Why are we still affected by long gone events?", "What makes us turn to past events and past emotions?", "What makes us repress many events into our unconscious, absurdly believing we managed to finally get rid of them?", "What happens when they come back afloat?", all the way to the final and most important question of all: "How can we control them?".

* I will deal in the next months with some more technical aspects of the emotional memory exercise as conceived by Lee Strasberg. 
My posts will be specifically based on my own personal experience, both as a performer and witness. 
Although the discourse will obviously refer to the acting sphere, it will inevitably present numerous connections to general principles and aspects of psychology. For example, I find Jung's exercises on active imagination particularly relevant. It is well known, moreover, that several Christian saints, yogis, philosophers, etc., dealt with similar problems and conceived similar exercises. 
Either in separate or in the same posts, I will talk about all these topics. 


  1. Hi Jay,
    I concur with Strasberg's statistics. I think only those who have really mastered their craft and have evolved spiritually can express emotion on cue. Acting live as in a theatre play requires more emotional energy as there are not retakes or fake tear drops. I guess the exercise you suggest here is how to apply those past experiences that still reside in our subconscious self and utilize them consciously.
    I can see you're really delving into Freud's territory here ;) Freud believed repression impeded the normal functioning of the psyche.

  2. Hi Claudia,
    Yes, that's exactly what the emotional memory exercises are about. Your hunch is quite right: the whole matter is a lot psychological. Maybe Freud would love to audit one of the emotional memory training sessions ;)

  3. What an interesting and very à propos post for this time of year for me, as this month marks four years since my father passed away. As time passes, the emotions that caused a veritable effortless spilling of tears the year that he passed now require minimal control; if I want to manifest the emotions, it requires a conscious replaying of events or, in contrast, an unconscious recalling of a memory, evoked by a song, a sentence, or an image can send us over the edge, so to speak. Your concluding questions really do offer a lot on which to ponder.

  4. Kris,
    Time certainly helps out get over emotional traumas, but it's not always so, unfortunately. Your mentioning songs, sentences, or images that can stir that hodgepodge of feelings we have inside is very proper. That actually shows to what extent we are still affected by past events and long gone persons.

    Thank you for your comment, Kris.