Method Acting Foundation: Three Pieces of Material

Talent is cheap, there’s plenty of talent out there, but the bright, canny and realistic actors understand you have to invest in training in order to have a sustained career. ~ Dee Cannon1

Author’s Note

Welcome to part three of my blog series of Method Acting Foundation. Because the order in which these exercise are done is important if you came here first, please check out part one Method Acting Foundation: Breakfast Drink Exercise and part two Method Acting Foundation: Mirror/Make-up and Shaving.

According to The Strasberg Notes, this third exercise is only done when an actor has a block, because “If the senses aren’t functioning and only the muscles are working, the actor can’t yet experience the other exercises.”2 With that being said, my acting teacher had everyone do this exercise, I assume because not everything will work for everyone, and I cannot see the harm in doing extra sensory exercises. Also, a reminder that this exercise is not meant to produce an emotional response, if it does acknowledge it, but then move on.

Three Pieces of Material

In comparing painting to acting I used to say that to paint an apple you have to see and to sense everything about the apple before you can come to a statement about it, and that if you combined that statement with your skill you might produce a canvas that had your mark. Picasso claimed you have to eat the apple first. He clearly wanted to come to full grips with his material and digest it before he gave it shape, before his statement came into being. ~ Uta Hagen 3

We wear clothes all the time, we touch pieces of material all the time, but we don’t really notice them let alone experience them, they’re just there. What this exercise is meant to do is to work with your sense memory skills. (See Method Acting Foundation: Breakfast Drink Exercise if you need an explanation or refresher on sense memory). This kind of work awakens your senses and makes you come into the moment, experience something in the right now as deeply as you can and then being able to recall that experience in detail at a later time.

I think that now, more than ever, being able to be present and block out the bullshit (to include what is going on around you and in your head) is just about the most important skill for an actor to have. And I think James Gunn, director of Guardians of the Galaxy, also believes that.

For this exercise you need three pieces of material: silk, cotton, and itchy wool. (I went to a fabric shop and got some fairly big pieces for really cheap.) These three different materials will have dramatically different sensory impacts, and while you know that on an intellectual level, getting to this at a sensorial level is what we’re looking for. Remember, as always, go slow. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

The Exercise

  1. Do your basic relaxation. You should do this before any exercise in order to get your mind and body into a proper creative and receptive state.
  2. While the exercise is meant to be more of a study in the sense of touch, remember to carry out an inspection of the material to include your other senses. “Pick up each piece of material, examine every inch of the fabric through your senses. Be inventive and think of things to do with each piece. Questioning is the best way to elicit ideas.”4
  3. Go to your room, and I cannot stress this enough, lock the door.
  4. Get naked and touch your entire body with each piece of fabric. Remember to take your time, really slow things down. (Author’s Note: This is weird, I know. Doing this the first time was extra strange. But remember what we are looking for. Different parts of your body will react differently to the deliberate touch of each of these fabrics. So the same fabric can have multiple different feelings depending on how and where it touches.) 
  5. Complete step 4 with each kind of fabric. After completing this step, the preparatory work for the exercise is complete.
  6. Now with your clothes back on, think back on your experience with each piece of fabric. Relive and recreate the experiences you had, but without using the material, do each material one at a time. This is just like the makeup and shaving exercise you are trying to recreate the sensations, and this takes time. Like the makeup and shaving exercise do not actually touch yourself when trying to remember the feeling because if you touch yourself you are actually creating a sensation rather than trying to recreate a past sensation. This is a bit more difficult because you now have your clothes back on which means you are having your clothes touch you all over, but this is a good way to begin to work with recreating a sensation while there is a competing sensation.

Adding Lines: Taking the Experience into Your Work

Remember that you should not add lines until you have done the exercise a few times. As an actor I know you want to get into the lines, but remember in screen acting most of what is conveyed in your acting actually has nothing to do with what you say and happens between the lines. Don’t be in a rush to get to the lines.

What we are trying to do here is distill the entire experience into just a single essence. “The main object of this exercise is to experience the materials fully and really express the difference between each in the lines you have to say. Don’t be coy. Real go for it.”5 In class Brian made it a point for us to really commit to our choices and be bold in them, because usually it is easier to reign in what you are doing than to try to become more expressive.

At this point it is necessary to mention to say, “Don’t decide to change the material in the middle of the exercise if it isn’t working. (this is true, incidentally of all the exercises.) You must stay with your original choice of material and fully investigate.”6

My Experience With the Exercise

When I did this exercise I used soft knit cotton. After the exercise, during the basic relaxation I concentrated on my experience with the material and made an immediate connection to the super comfy jersey sheets I used to own. So now if I focus my attention to thinking about jersey sheets and I began to yawn and feel tired. Its actually really cool to me to have a trigger word like that, its very good to have things like this in your kit bag.

When I did the exercise with itchy wool I distilled the experience to the random itches all over my body and it manifests itself in small jerks, odd muscle tension, aggressive scratching, and a bit too much energy because I am trying to suppress all of it.

Once you get the hang of this you can ask yourself what material represents the character I am portraying. This can lead to some interesting choices.

Links to Things Referenced in this Blog:

Method Acting Foundation: Mirror/Make-up and Shaving

The second exercise in the Strasberg progression is the Mirror/make-up or shaving exercise.

“Talent alone isn’t enough. What makes for greatness in the actor? Greatness needs that extra effort, which is commitment.” – Lee Strasberg1

Author’s note

This is part two of Method Acting Foundation series. The order in which these are done is important and was directed by Straberg because they build on each other and allow the opening of the instrument to the new experiences. “No baseball pitcher starts training by pitching the ball to see how hard he can throw it…On the contrary, they exercise generally, they run, they do calisthenics, and then they easily start performing their specialties.”2

So, if you have come to this page first, please check out the first blog in this series: Method Acting Foundation: Breakfast Drink Exercise.


The purpose of these sense memory exercises is to build up your concentration, the kind of concentration necessary for acting which demands the ability to recreate something which is not there. These basic exercises train the you to create and recreate any object, or group of objects, which combine into an event that stimulates the desired experience called for in the performance.3

I think that Lola Cohen described it best in her book The Method Acting Exercises Handbook when she said, “By cultivating an ethos of attention, concentrating on the details of the various tasks during the exercises, you aren’t just going through the motions, imitating or miming the behavior, but truly re-experiencing it sensorially.”4

The second exercise

“The second exercise in concentration is looking in the mirror – for the female, combing the hair and putting on makeup; and for the male, shaving. The actor actually practices these exercises while he’s performing the real task at home. He then tries to repeat the reality without the presence of the objects. The emphasis is not on imitating the way in which he performs these common activities, but on the ability to recreate the objects that go into the performing of these tasks by means of sense memory.5

THe mirror

First, as with all of these exercises, do basic relaxation before starting the exercise. Come back to relaxation if you become bored, worried, or self-conscious.

Relaxation is only a prelude to the actor’s central concern: the need for concentration. Everything the actor does is a two-sided action. Relaxation is connected with concentration. – Lee Strasberg6

The Mirror/Make-Up/Shaving Exercise is more personal than the Breakfast Drink Exercise in that it specifically involves your own visual sense of yourself. Strasberg told us that actors must understand themselves before they can understand and become a character.7 This exercise may cause some kind of emotional reaction because it deals with how you see yourself. This response is normal, but it is not the reason for the exercise, so if an emotional response happens, acknowledge it, and then move on.

Before beginning the application of make-up or starting to shave, we must first observe ourselves in great detail. This is hard for some actors to do, but being able to have a true sense of self is vital to being in touch with your instrument.

I was not taught the first portion of this exercise and only discovered it after reading a bit more on method acting progression. I feel that this is a vital step, and should not be ignored.

Look at yourself in the mirror, truly examine yourself for about 30 minutes. Inspect every part of your body from the neck up. Notice your eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. Are they symmetrical? Inspect your hair line. Do you notice any marks, scars, scratches, blemishes? Look at parts of you face that you normally do not pay any attention to study it in detail. What imperfections do you see? What do you see that you like? What would you change?

Make-up and shaving

Now this part of the exercise if very similar to the Breakfast Drink Exercise. We are going to go slow, it is not about how long things actually take, this is about experiential time. Going fast leads to imitation and inauthentic behavior. It may take an hour to fully experience this event. Keep in mind to only focus on one sensory at a time: sight, sound, touch, taste smell.

If you normally do not put on make-up or shave consider doing this exercise to “experience the shock of awakening to new and unfamiliar sensations and reflections.”8

The first time you conduct this exercise actually do it in front of the mirror with all the tools required. “Go through each sense slowly. Ask yourself, “hat am I touching, smelling seeing, hearing?” and so on.”9 Here are something to consider as a starting point, but by no means is this an exhaustive list.

  • Sight
    • What does your razor look like? What color is it? How many blades does it have? Is it disposable?
    • What type of make-up are you using? What tools are you using to apply it?
    • What kind of shaving cream do you use? What does the label look like? What does it look like when it first comes out of the can versus later?
    • When running the water does the mirror begin to fog?
    • Watching the shaved hair and lather swirl around the drain.
  • Sound
    • What does it sound like to pick your razor up off the sink?
    • How does it sound to open the compact, swirl the brush, or take the cap off of other cosmetics?
    • What sound is made when you tap the razor on the sink to clean it?
    • Running water over the blades?
    • What noise is made when you shake the shaving cream can, or mix the lather with a brush?
    • The sound of the water hitting the sink and taking the foam with it it.
  • Touch
    • How much does your razor, shaving cream, etc weigh?
    • What does it feel like putting that first bit of lather? Is it hot or cold?
    • What is the texture of the handle?
    • What is the texture of your shaving brush?
    • What is the texture of the end of the brush? Do you use different brushes for different make-up? Notice how each has its own feel against your skin.
    • How does the feeling of the first pass of the razor or make-up brush differ from the second or third pass?
    • If/when you cut yourself how does it feel?
    • Notice how different parts of your face/neck react differently to different stimulus. Your upper lip will have a very different sensation when compared to your throat with the same stimulus.
  • Taste
    • No mater how hard I try I always get shaving cream in my mouth. I know the taste well.
    • Notice when you lick your lips, either intentionally or unintentionally.
  • Smell
    • All of the products we use have their own unique smell, but also notice how they can change when you mix them together (i.e. putting shaving cream on top of shaving oil affects both smells).

Sense Memory

Now we’ll shift to working on the exercise away from the bathroom, with an imaginary mirror and objects. I was taught to first do this with my eyes closed and then to do it with my eyes open, but I have also found acting teachers that also teach eyes open first, so depending on how you feel you may choose to just go straight for eyes open. The biggest thing to remember here is to TAKE YOUR TIME. If you rush you will be imitating behavior, we’re here to really experience it through the senses, and that takes time.

After completing basic relaxation, stare at yourself in the imaginary mirror for ten minutes. Imagine your face, each of its features, all the imperfections, just as you did with the real mirror.

Next begin the activity. “Ask yourself sensory questions about each object you deal with. How does the blush-on brush feel in your hand, against your face or cheeks? Imagine the ‘pop’ sound of pulling the mascara brush out of its holder. What’s the smell, weight, texture, and the color of everything being used?”10

“When you apply anything to your skin don’t actually touch your skin but hover above it and try to recreate the sensation. If you were to actually touch the skin you are creating a real sensation at that moment, which is not the sensation you have when you actually do the activity.” 11

Adding Lines

It is not until you have completed this exercise multiple times should you begin to add lines. I used this quote this in the post about the Breakfast Drink Exercise, but it bears repeating.

“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.” – Lee Straberg12


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. We’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: