Method Acting Foundation: Breakfast Drink Exercise

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times. ~ Bruce Lee

Success is all about consistency and fundamentals

Being a professional actor is just like being a professional anything. It’s hard work, and lots of practice. It’s all about fundamentals, and how they build on top of each other.  You can’t go into the gym if you’ve never been and lift 1000lbs, your body isn’t ready, your body needs to go through the natural progression, through the process.

This exercise is one of a few basic fundamental sense memories taught by Lee Strasberg for actors to sharpen their concentration, sensitivity, and mental discipline.  This first step, and the next few exercises I’ll talk about, have long reaching consequences. The hard part is trusting the process when you are only on your first few steps on your journey. This is one of those exercises that may test your patience, and make you think, “What the hell does this have to do with anything?” I know because I’ve been there. But to use an old military adage, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” By slowing down and focusing on fundamentals, the rest will eventually flow. You just have to do it 10,000 times.

The minute you get away from fundamentals – whether its proper technique, work ethic or mental preparation – the bottom can fall out of your game, your schoolwork, your job, whatever you’re doing. ~ Michael Jordan

The Breakfast Drink exercise is a sense memory

“The senses hold the key to life and experience. Sense memory exercises train the actor to utilize all five sense and to respond as fully and vividly to imaginary objects on stage as hes capable of doing with real objects in life. A lack of basic sense memory work often stops the actor from developing further, and therefore being able to deal with the variety of problems which the actor faces and the theater presents to us. With these exercises, it’s not the physical sequence of the actions that we’re after. That can become external, which leads to imitation. The exercises test concentration and response, and serve as a foundation for the actor’s work.”1

“If Relaxation is the foundation upon which rests the “house of method”, then Sense Memory is the structure of the house. Without it, the house is a transparent frame sitting on a solid foundation.”2

First, what is a sense memory: an acting technique where an actor recalls the physical sensations surrounding an experience to trigger truthful responses. There is nothing inherently emotional about this, but if emotions come, that’s fine acknowledge it, and move on. 

This exercise is designed to make you work with all five senses.

  • Sight
  • Sound
  • Touch
  • Taste
  • Smell

In her book, The Method Acting Exercises Handbook, author Lola Cohen stresses the importance of focusing your awareness on one sense at a time. This creates a thorough, detailed, patient sensory exploration, which may not feel normal to you but is crucial during training.  The act of slowing down has the added benefit of cultivating graceful movements which lend themselves to actually feeling and not imitating life.3

Remember, as actors, we cannot be focused on the end result, that is like chasing a unicorn, you’ll never catch it. You have to focus on the process and believe it will take you where you need to go. I have found myself in very zen like states of flow during some acting exercises like I’ve never felt before. But when I tried to recreate that experience I continuously failed because I was pushing for my brain to do something that it had to come to in its own time.

This can be illustrated by Aesop’s fable “The North Wind and the Sun.” 

The North Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger, when a traveler came along wrapped in a warm cloak. They agreed that the one who first succeeded in making the traveler take his cloak off should be considered stronger than the other. Then the North Wind blew as hard as he could, but the more he blew the more closely did the traveler fold his cloak around him; and at last the North Wind gave up the attempt. Then the Sun shined out warmly, and immediately the traveler took off his cloak. And so the North Wind was obliged to confess that the Sun was the stronger of the two.4

A few notes:

  • “Before practicing a sense memory exercise, always do the relaxation exercise first and continue to check it throughout the exercise. When the exercise isn’t working, don’t change to a different one in midstream. If you get bored, tired, or frustrated during the exercise go back to relaxation for a few minutes then return to the exercise and remember, always focus on working slowly and specifically W’re after the sensor reality, not the action of the muscles.”5
  • Your first drink of the day should have a taste, so I don’t advocate using water. I myself use Earl Grey Tea.
  • Choosing a cup/mug: I went out and specifically bought an interesting mug for this exercise. It is the main photo for this blog entry. It is engaging for touch and sight because it has hundreds of raised spots on the mug, giving me something to really focus on.
  • Always do it in the same room, with the same mug/cup, and the same drink.
  • Start with 10 minutes and build up to 45, but remember repetition is more important that time.
  • I have repeatedly asked why it must be your breakfast drink, why must it be the first thing you drink during the day, and I have not yet gotten an answer that I am satisfied with. So, after a lot of thought, this is why I think it must be your breakfast drink:  Your senses, your body, your concentration all have finite ability and energy. At the beginning of the day, when you just wake up, you have come from a sensory deprived state, and are more attuned to small changes and are able to concentrate for extended periods of time. At the end of the day, you are tired or exhausted, you have had stimulus presented to you all day, so you will not have the same sensitivity, and your ability to concentrate will have been greatly diminished. Also, at least in my house, the morning is quiet, and I am never interrupted, which always lends itself better to self-exploration. 

The Breakfast Drink Exercise:

  • With your cup and liquid sit down in a comfortable place.
  • Focus on each of the senses individually as you drink it. Here are some suggestions for beginning your observations. 
    • Sight
      • What does your cup look like? 
      • What color is it? 
      • What color is the liquid? 
      • Is there steam coming from it?
      • Are there bubbles? How many? Where in the cup?
      • Is there anything settled at the bottom of your cup?
      • Are there any imperfections in your cup?
      • One thing I found myself mesmerized by, was that every day the tea stains on my mug were different, and to me always looked like an abstract painting of a landscape. It was always different, even if I did everything the same. I’m sure there is a lesson or analogy there somewhere. 
    • Sound
      • When you pick up or set down your cup what sound does it make?
      • What sound does the liquid make when swirled around in your cup?
      • When you slurp or sip, how does the sound change? How does these sounds change as the amount of liquid in your cup goes down?
      • When you swish your drink in your mouth what can you hear?
      • When you swallow, follow the sound down to your stomach. 
    • Touch 
      • What is the temperature of the cup? Can you feel the heat or cold radiating from the cup?
      • How heavy does the cup feel in my hand. How does this weight change over time?
      • What does my cup feel like? Trace the shape with your fingers.
      • Can you feel any imperfections in your cup? (For me, there is one dot that had an air bubble in it when it was baked so it has a sharp edge, and I call that bubble my anchor point, it really helps me visualize the and place the rest of the mug in space.)
      • What does it feel like when your lips first touch your cup?
      • When you take a sip, how does it feel when it enters your mouth?  
      • How thick is the liquid? 
      • When you swish it around in your mouth, how does it feel?
      • When you swallow follow the liquid down to your stomach. Can you feel the heat or cold radiate through you?
      • How does the temperature change during the time spent on the exercise?
    • Taste
      • Become intimately familiar with its flavors. What is it like at the beginning, middle, and end of each sip?
      • Does the first ship and last ship taste the same?
    • Smell
      • This one I have always had trouble with, because when I smell a familiar smell I am immediately transported back to an event/time/location. But to really sit down and try to think of/recreate a smell in my mind’s eye seems to be damn near impossible for me. I know you’ll find blockages like this in your work because not everything works for everyone. My acting teacher always told us to strengthen our strengths, so if something works well for you, do that.

Now that you’ve really experienced your breakfast drink, it’s time to shift from observing these sensations to trying to relive them, hence sense memory. Follow the whole process again, but this time with no cup or liquid. “Don’t imitate what you did with the real object. Re-experience the sensations, not the physical imitation of remembered muscular behavior.”6

After doing this a few days, I was taught to add in a monologue. I did this monologue during both the actual drinking, and also during the sense memory portion. “Don’t add words too soon to the exercises because we face the danger that the lines will become the major incentive, and that what the actor does will remain only illustrations of the lines. The lines should be part of the behavior of the character, not just an abstract set of words.”7

First, take a sip of your drink. Experience it, then say a single line from your monologue. Next, take two full sips, taking time to really feel everything you can about it, then say your next line. Finally, take three sips, and say your third line. Stay at three sips for the rest of your lines.

Remember when doing this without the actual liquid that each sip takes a long time, you will more than likely want to force through, speed up, be doing something, but please remember to take your time. It may sound silly, but after doing this every morning, at some point I had a breakthrough where my lines flowed, and it felt so different, so natural, it was authentic.

Things Referenced in this blog:

  1. Lola Cohen, editor, The Lee Strasberg Notes (New York: Routledge, 2010), 14
  2. “Sense Memory for Actors,” Theatr Group,[Available Online: http://www.theatrgroup.com/Method/actor_sense_memory.html ] (Accessed 15 June 2020)
  3. Lola Cohen, The Method Acting Exercises Handbook (New York: Routledge, 2017), 32
  4. Wikipedia.org, The North Wind and the Sun, [Online], https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_North_Wind_and_the_Sun [Accessed 21 May, 2020]
  5. Lola Cohen, editor, The Lee Strasberg Notes (New York: Routledge, 2010), 15
  6. Ibid., 17
  7. Ibid.

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