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
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.
- 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.
- 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
- Go to your room, and I cannot stress this enough, lock the door.
- 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.)
- Complete step 4 with each kind of fabric. After completing this step, the preparatory work for the exercise is complete.
- 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.