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