Psychological Acting: Emotional/Sense Memory

Lesson 2: Psychological Acting: Emotional/Sense Memory


Objective: Students will be able to demonstrate their understanding of psychological acting, specifically sense and emotional memory, by playing the improve game Emotional Quadrants.



TH:Cr3.1.II.b. Use research and script analysis to revise physical, vocal, and physiological choices impacting the believability and relevance of a drama/ theatre work

TH:Pr5.1.II.a. Refine a range of acting skills to build a believable and sustainable drama/theatre performance.


Materials: 40 sugar and salt packages, index cards for exit cards, 30 pieces of paper, string


Preparation: Cut the pieces of string before class. Each quadrant should be at least 3-4 feet around.


Starter: Have the students write down their answer to, “Who is your favorite actor and why?”


  1. What are some of the things you wrote down?
  2. Do we see similarities/differences?
  3. Someone is probably bound to say the words “real” or “just like real life.” When they do ask, why is that important?


Instruction (5 minutes)

Purpose: To help the students identify what psychological acting looks like.

Yesterday we started discussing and practicing psychological acting techniques. It is important to note that most psychological methods are the basis of most of the acting that you see today in films, tv, and broadway theatre. It is an acting method that is trying to represent reality. This acting method has only been popular for the last 50ish years.



Psychological acting relies on the actor’s ability to put their mind (and thus body) into the experience of the character. Let’s practice some ways of putting our minds into the situation of a character. We are going to start by practicing what is called “sense memory” or “sensory recall.”

  • What do you think this means?
    • To use your own memories of sensory experiences (for example, burning your hand on the stove) to inform your reaction in real life. You are substituting these memories for the ones that the character might have.


Activity 1: Sensory Recall Practice (20 minutes)

We are going to practice doing some Sensory Recall Activities. Just a note, if it feels like you cannot put your memory of your reactions into your body in a believable way, try just focusing on one thing. For example, if you are trying to act out stretching after you wake up, focus a specific place you are try to stretch.


Step 1: Being Cold

Get the class up on the stage, with everyone having a small individual place in the room. Have them think of a time when they were really cold. Encourage them to identify the specific places on their body that were cold. Was it their bear arms? Was it their toes? How did this effect their movement? Once they have thought of something, have them walk around as if they were cold.


Step 2: Practice being hot

Now, do the same thing but with heat.


Step 3: Practice feeling the wind in your hair.


Step 4: Tasting Salt

Hand out a packet of sugar and a packet of salt. Explain that all at once, we are going to eat the packet of salt (or eat as much as you can without throwing up, even if that is only the smallest taste.)

Now, we are going to pantomime this exact experience. Before we start, take a moment to think about how your muscles tightened, how it felt on your tongue, how it tasted, and all of the other sensations you felt when you ate it. Now on the count of three, we are going to recreate what happened. 1-2-3.


Step 5: Tasting Sugar

Now do the exact same thing with the sugar packets.


Discussion (10 minutes)

  1. How did your memories inform your facial expressions, movements, and other things?
  2. What do you think of this technique? Do you feel like this method will allow you to make believable actions on stage? Why or why not?


Transition/Safety Discussion (10 minutes)

We are going to take this memory recall to the next step. The next technique we are going to try is emotional recall. This is when you recall more emotional memories and use them as a substitute. This is a challenging technique, so we are going to try to start small. It is also one that we must be very careful with. This requires us to use emotional experiences from our own lives, which means we must be stewards over our own selves. Don’t dip into anything too emotional for these activities. Recalling emotional experiences can result in pulling out unresolved issues that may trigger your emotions in a way that you didn’t plan or want. In fact, the more resolved the memory, the better it is to pull from it.

  • Why do you think it is better to pull from more resolved memories?
    • because it will allow you to get into character, but allow mature control over emotions.


Let me give you an example. When I was in college, I was assigned to a scene from the play, “Proof.” I was playing Catherine, a young woman who has just lost her father. At the time, I had just lost my own father only a month before. The first rehearsal I had with my scene partner, I tried to apply Emotional Recall from my recent memories of grieving. I wasn’t able to do it in a safe way because I was still going through that emotion. Recalling those emotions only made it so my memories and feelings were taking over my ability to become the character. I had to find another way to act out the scene, and other things to recall.


  • In a situation like this, what are some other ways to use emotional recall? What other kinds of memories could you use?
    • Think about the specific emotions that are a part of grieving. Loss, hurt, shame, love, etc. You don’t have to have lost your father to have felt those things before. (That’s why it is called substitution.)
    • Have a trigger object. Instead of dragging yourself through the mud, think of an object or something else that may bring the emotions without having to go through the memories.
    • Create a new memory. Some famous actors do crazy things. Take this actor for an example.
      • Adrien Brody, actor from the Pianst: In order to accurately play the role of Władysław Szpilman, Brody literally gave up everything. Brody gave up his apartment, sold his car, disconnected his phones and moved to Europe. Why? Brody needed to truly feel what it was like to lose everything. He also broke up with his girlfriend, and stopped eating. He wanted to know what it would be like to be starving and have to work.


Activity 2: Emotional Recall Practice (20 Minutes)

Have the students take a deep breath before you start.


Step 1: Let’s start by working on laughing. Think of a time when you laughed really hard at something. What did that feel like emotionally? What did it feel like in terms of sensory experience? Now, let’s try laughing.


Step 2: Now let’s think of a different type of laughing, one that isn’t as hard and intense. Can you think about a time when you felt that? What did it feel like emotionally? What did it feel like in terms of sensory experience? Let’s try that laugh.


Step 3: Now let’s think about abstract experiences. Do the same activity, but this time, have the students think of a time when they felt the following words:

  • Freedom, dislike, love


  1. How was your experience different and similar to our exercises on sense memory?
  2. Was it easy? Why or why not?
  3. How would this help you make believable choices?


Informal Assessment: Emotional Quadrants

We are now going to try playing around with sense and emotional memory in acting.


Step 1: Divide the class into groups of 8, and assign them to certain parts of the space. Give them each 4 pieces of paper and string. Explain that each of the groups will be doing the same improv activity.


Step 2: Have the students divide the scene in 4 quadrants, and allocate 4 different emotions to each quadrant. Demonstrate what their playing space should look like. Let them decide what emotions they want, but they have to remain appropriate. Here are some suggestions on possible emotional quadrants you could have: Sad, lonely, joyful, excited, surprised, terrified, grateful, etc. Explain that the players improvise a discussion between parent and child, but need to take on the emotion of the quadrant they are in. Each player will have 1-2 minutes in the activity.


Only two players will be able to go at a time, so the rest of the group should be a good audience for them. While the students are doing this activity, the teacher should be taking some brief feedback on how well students are accessing emotion. Also take notes on how well the class seems to be taking on the emotions of each quadrant.

Have the students clean up the quadrants 5 minutes before the class is over.


Conclusion: Exit Card

Before students exit the room, have them quickly answer the following question on a small piece of paper.

  1. How well do you understand what the psychological acting method is? (5 is extremely well, 1 is not at all.)


Assessment: Students will receive 20 participation points for the day. They will get another 5 points for the exit card, and 5 points for the starter. Students will get informally graded on the exit card assessment.


Adaptations: Students who have difficulty speaking in the discussions can write down responses on a piece of paper. Extended time to answer verbally will be provided by the teacher.