Imagination: also called the faculty of imagining, is the ability of forming images and sensations when they are not perceived through sight, hearing, or other senses. Imagination helps provide meaning to experience and understanding to knowledge; it is a fundamental faculty through which people make sense of the world, and it also plays a key role in the learning process.
Imagination is an important, and I would add vital, tool to acting and the pursuit of full transformation and creation. The activation of the imagination can enrich the character, the environment and the text, all reflecting back to offer the audience a more vivid experience in the theatre. For the sake of this blog, I’m going to talk about imagination in the context of text and monologue.
A lot of actors like to do what we call a “back story” work. We imagine all the scenarios/details not given within the context of the play; a characters favorite color, the place they grew up in, the face of a lost lover, age, family details, health, etc., anything that can add to creating a more full and realized character…basically. Most of this process is all very cerebral however, I’m going to introduce or discuss (for those who have used this technique) an activity I was taught in my Fitzmaurice Voice class called ‘Imaging.’
1. You start with text. A monologue or scene, I’ve used this activity for both. For the sake of the blog let’s take this text delivered by Edgar in the final act of King Lear.
This would have seemed a period
To such as love not sorrow; but another,
To amplify too much, would make much more
And top extremity. Whilst I
Was big in clamor, came there in a man
Who, having seen me in my worst estate,
Shunned my abhorred society; but then, finding
Who ‘twas that so endured, with his strong arms
He fastened on my neck and bellowed out
As he’d burst heaven, threw him on my father,
Told the most piteous tale of Lear and him
That ever ear received, which, in recounting,
His grief grew puissant, and the strings of life
Began to crack.
2. Choose a method for highlighted of distinguishing words from the text. I like highlighters, some people prefer underline and then box and then circle, etc. Find a way to distinguish different word groupings as follows; a) go through the text and mark all the NOUNS, person, place or thing, emotional state, also count he/she, him/her if they are not identified otherwise (for this piece: love, sorrow, clamour, man, estate, society, arms, neck, heaven, father, tale, Lear, ear, grief, strings, life, I) b) mark all the ADJECTIVES different from the nouns (more – this case I would use this work because it is modifying the situation/context, big, top, worst, abhorred, strong, puissant) c) same thing with VERBS (amplify, seen, shunned, finding, endured, fastened, bellowed, burst, threw, told, received, recounting, grew, crack, tranced). Now the table work is done.
3. Next with your highlighted (I do think the highlighted is the best method because its easy to distinguish) text beside you, find a place on the floor, lie down in corpse pose (on back, all limbs on the ground, palms facing up, feet in line with the hips and feet naturally fall out). Allow your body to totally release into the floor. Close your eyes and tune into your breath. Do not alter the breath, let it naturally occur. Send the breathe to the feet. Next to the ankles, the knees and then the hips. Send the breath to the stomach and the side ribcage. Send the breath to the back and then the shoulder, the elbows, the hands and the fingers. This should all happened slowly, in the rhythm of the breath. Now just take a moment tell any place in your body where you feel tension to release. Keep breathing.
4. Take the set of NOUNS. Take the first word, in this case, “love.” Close your eyes. Now allow yourself to see the first image for “love” that comes to you and say the word directly responding to the image. Now, allow another image for love to come to mind, something different and again see the image and say the work in direct response to the image. You are going to do this as many times as you see a different image, which may very. I’m going to have a lot of images for love but not as many for strong, perhaps. For example, if I use”love” I close my eyes and see my husband’s face, I smile and say “love.” I move onto the next image. I see my brother’s face, I smile and laugh a little and I say “love” very differently because the image and feelings associated are different between my husband and my brother. I close my eyes again and I see a single candle flame, warm in the darkness. I feel and I say “love” in direct response to this NEW image. And so on.
5) You continue this imaging for all you NOUNS, ADJECTIVES and VERBS as much as you like, as many images as you can conjure for each word. Be sure to allow yourself to fully see the image, express the word/feeling and then take a moment to breathe before moving onto the next image, allow one to close out before beginning another. And finish one whole set (NOUNS) before moving onto the next (VERBS).
The object of this exercise is to offer the actor a full range of images and emotional/visual association for as many words in the text as possible. This makes it easy to find the rich emotional, visual and sensational associations for your text. There are many instances where an actor is on stage and we are recalling, retelling or explaining something that already happened or will happen, this occurs a lot in Shakespeare. When I was in Hamlet (I played Ophelia), I had an entire monologue about Lord Hamlet bursting into Ophelia’s bedroom and with a horrifying look on his face, begins to display odd and frightening behavior (the first time Ophelia begins to fear that something is up with Hamlet). Ophelia is so overwhelmed by this experience that she runs to her father and recounts the entire experience. Shakespeare provides extremely rich text work but if the actress portraying Ophelia does not allow the imagery to take her back into that room, it is a rather boring and pointless speech. Ophelia’s fear and confusion in this moment must be conveyed to her father and the audience through her reliving the experience not simply retelling the story.
Imaging is a powerful tool for the actor and audience alike. If we, as artists, as truly connected to the visual and emotional images of the text, we introduce the audience into a more first hand experience in the life of the play. I use imaging a lot, especially with Shakespeare and in monologues. If I find myself stuck on a word, it is often because I am not fully seeing and experiencing the word. Visualize, Respond, Express. Paint the Picture and be the Painter.