The "Affective Memory" is one of the most widely known procedures in all of "method" acting. It has obtained a reputation that ranges from "dangerous" to "genius". The history of its development and use is a long one, and I will refer you to the "books" button below for more information on that topic.
ACTING WITH YOUR SCARS
My purpose here is to attempt to simplify this procedure for actors reading this, as well as guests who are simply curious about so-called "method" acting.
Shelley Winters, one of the world's great actors, had said that the actor must be willing to "act with your scars". Simply translated (which is not easy, because Shelley Winters was not a simple person), it means that when it is time for the actor to reveal those deepest, most frightening or painful experiences written by the author for the character he has created, the actor using our approach to the work has to find similar experiences in his own life, and be first willing, and then able to relive those experiences onstage as the "character".
Back to Basics
As a general example, let's assume in a scene, you have just discovered your mother has been brutally murdered, and she was the only friend you had left in the world. The actor using this work will find an event or parallel situation from his own life's experiences, and set about to recreate that experience using an Affective Memory.
Most of us, fortunately, have never had a loved one murdered. But everyone has experienced emotions in life that could parallel that situation. As an example, the trauma that some children undergo when parents decide to divorce might leave an everlasting scar in the memory of the child. Victims of child abuse may also find material to draw upon.
Lee Strasberg recommended that the actor use memories that are at least seven years old, to avoid risking psychological trauma.
So the actor searches his memory for the parallel event, and finally decides to try to create its reliving.
When the actor has found a parallel situation from his own life he wishes to try to relive for the life of the person in the story, he begins his work by sitting in a chair, and doing the Relaxation Exercise.
Actors attempting an Affective Memory for the first time should do so only under the supervision of a qualified instructor. Any number of unusual responses can result from this exercise, including hyperventilation and anxiety attacks.
After relaxing, the actor begins a Sense Memory exercise that will help with the recreation of the remembered event. The more specifically the actor creates the objects of the memory, the more fully the Affective Memory will work.
Strasberg stressed that during this part of the exploration, the actor should avoid "going for the emotion", by trying to "will" it to come on its own accord. He recommended the actor simply concentrate his full attention on the sensory aspects of the various elements of the actual memory: Where did the "event" take place? If in a room, describe the room in as much sensory detail as possible. Try to remember what you may have been wearing that moment, then sensorally recreate the clothing. What color was it? What material? Feel the material. Describe the patterns on the clothing. What season was it? What time of day? What objects are in the room with you. Touch them, see them, hear them, smell them or taste them.
If the actor dedicates his sensory apparatus fully to exploring these sensory memories, without regard to the resulting emotion, he may find at any point during the exploration, the reliving of the event, with the associated emotional experience is, without warning, triggered.
It also happens that the actor may be expecting to relive an emotion associated with a specific event from his life, and a quite different emotion is produced than expected. Something which might have been very painful in childhood, might cause us to laugh hysterically now.
When the resulting emotion is not as expected, the actor notes the result of the exercise to use for reference in other scenework that may call for that particular response. Then he tries once again to find the object that will appropriately affect him for the work in which he is presently involved.
For most actors, simply recalling a past event will not produce an honest and intense emotional response. Relaxation and Sense Memory is the "combination to the safe", where personal treasures of the actor's memories are stored away for the lifetime of the actor.
On one occasion at the Actors Studio-West, I remarked to Shelley that it is my own personal belief that some actors, herself included, had a special ability to execute an Affective Memory by instinct, and such ability was bestowed upon only a very special and gifted few in our profession.
I continued with the premise that although many can be trained or guided to use the Affective Memory successfully, there will always be those who will never respond effectively to it.
She disagreed with me. But I am still convinced, and accept her argument as her acknowledgment that she doesn't accept herself as the genius she was.