How does Stanislavsky’s Theory of Emotional Memory Work?


Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938), the renowned Russian actor and co-founder of the Moscow Art Theater devised an acting system called “emotional memory” to achieve a more realistic performance. His techniques are used to build believable characters.

The Emotional Memory

The key to mastering Emotional Memory is to refrain from “acting” your emotions on stage. Instead, you draw from a time in your own life when you experienced similar feelings. When you recall how you felt, you are then able to naturally experience these emotions. This creates a more realistic and personal performance.

Practitioners of this method are cautioned not to force a memory or recall something painful. Stanislavski said to be careful not to “assault the subconscious.” It is recommended to use memories from past experiences, rather than emotions experienced in current situations or circumstances.

I can recall an activity done by Mr. Palitha Silva, a veteran dramatist an actor in Sri Lanka to introduce this emotional memory in play: He asked us to think of the happiest moment in our lives and how we felt and acted at that moment and asked us to apply the same technique to sadness and anger. Later he asked us to use the same method to situations in the script to create more authentic characters in the play.

Stanislavski also advocated for using “Sense Memory,” which he referred to as “Creative Fantasy,” to help an actor develop a dramatic imagination. The actor is asked to think of a memory and apply all five senses. Using this technique, the actor can more vividly recall a memory and the emotions experienced at that time.

That means the actor has to think of an imaginary situation and think how he/she would act in such situation. For example: How would you react if a thief steals your money at a railway station. By doing so, Stanislavski believed that the characters would be more authentic and spontaneous in the act. 


Method of physical action

Stanislavski found that too much sitting and analyzing of a character and characterization, stilted the actors’ creativity so he started the practical work on scenes earlier. There is a physical aspect to thought and therefore physical work can act as a stimulus to the imagination and the unconscious, every action has a psychological element. For example: If the character paces up and down fast, breathes heavily that may be the way of showing his/her anger. This emotional objective can be easily shown or achieved through physical action.

By action he means action directed towards the achievement of an objective. Complex emotions in the play/characters are broken down into a serious of actions and often improvisation is used to unlock the text. Working from physical actions stimulates the actor to explore the character’s inner life. He recognized that physical actions are more accessible and tangible than feelings


 The Seven Questions

Applying Stanislavski’s technique requires actors to perform a detailed analysis of the script. They then need to find the answers to these Seven Questions to fully understand their characters and motivations:

·        Who am I?

·        Where am I?

·        What time Is It?

·        What do I want?

·        Why do I want it?

·        How will I get what I want?

·        What do I need to overcome to get what I want?


Uncovering the answers to these questions requires thoughtful reflection. It often leads to a more personal connection between actors and their characters. That means, on stage everything must be real in the imaginary life of the actor. This is called the magic if.


The Magic If

With the Seven Questions exercise, actors are in a position to take the understanding of their characters to a deeper level by using “The Magic If.” Practitioners of the Stanislavski system often ask themselves: If I were in my character’s situation, what would I do?

If not means: if you speak any lines, or do anything, mechanically without fully realizing who you are, where you came from, why, what you want, where you are going and what you will do when you get there, you will be acting without your imagination.

In this exercise, actors reflect upon their personal experiences and feelings, and apply them to their characters. When an actor thinks about he or she would react in a particular situation, it provides further insight regarding some of the choices and challenges faced by their characters.


How to work on emotional memory

Making personal connection between actors and their characters also a process which should be developed through practice. For that Stanislavski has introduced a series of guidelines: According to them It is necessary for you as an actor:

·        Bring back feelings you have experienced.

·        Do exercises to train the memory.

·        Work on making emotional memories conscious and vivid in order to have a wide range of experiences to draw on.

·        Exercises to release tension in the body and mind.

·        Circles of attention - relaxation exercises to increase focus and awareness.

·        Finding the inner rhythm of the character - affects how you do an action and how you react to other characters. Stanislavski did exercises using metronomes with actors working in different rhythms.

Stanislavski’s theory on emotional memory has changed the conventional shape of drama and theater into more realistic and close to day to day actions of people which made stage plays more close to the audience making it more digestible.

What are your experiences with the method of emotional memory in your productions? Please do share them with us to enrich the knowledge of our readership. If you find this article useful to you and anyone you know. Share it with them.


You may also like to read:

About theProscenium Theater and its parts.

The body positions on the stage for better presentation of drama.



·        On Location Education, Alan Simon. (web)

·        Stanislavski C. An Actor Prepares translated by Reynolds-Hargood E. (1937) (ed 1995) Methuen Drama

·        Stanislavski C. Creating a Role (ed 1968) TH New English Library. London

·        Mitter S. Systems of Rehearsal (1992) Routledge

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