Insight from the inside

Come to Your Senses

Part 1 of 3

The Essential Five Senses: Our Birthright

When we are growing up our teachers inform us about the FIVE senses: Vision, Hearing, Taste, Touch and Smell. They define us and are necessary to the choices we make as actors. A sense gives us unique information we can’t get any other way. Imagine that your mind is a gigantic storage locker which will hold an infinite number of observations, memories, impressions, emotions, the scrapbooks and the journals which will always be available to you when you need them.

Let’s use the recent holiday season as a starting point for our exploration. I have taken an inventory of the five basic senses which correspond to sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. When Julie Andrews sang “My Favorite Things” to the children in The Sound of Music not only could we remember the lyrics but relate to her ‘things’. So I have made a list of my own, some of which may also be on yours.

SIGHTS we can tuck away for future use when we are creating a character profile. The Nutcracker ballet at Lincoln Center; the huge decorated tree at 30 Rock, The Rockettes at Radio City. The Empire State Building beaming red and green; The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera, vendors selling Christmas trees and holly branches. Ice skaters. Salvation Army volunteers and Santas ringing bells for donations; decorated brownstones with wreaths and all the colorful lights. Snowmen, tinsel, and the yule logs in the fireplace.

SOUNDS of carolers and church hymns, music boxes, the steaming tea kettles, the crackling fire from the hearth, birdsong, partridges in pear trees, the laughter of children, “Ho Ho Ho” from Santas in shopping malls, Theatres featuring productions of Elf the musical, A Christmas Story and The Grinch, and “Bah Humbug!” from the actors portraying Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, jingle bells, silver bells and sleigh bells.

SMELLS of the season: Scotch Pine trees. Chestnuts roasting, fresh baked cookies and gingerbread. Hot chocolate with marshmallow, mulled cider, cinnamon, cloves, oranges, nutmeg, coffee flavors, oven smells from roast turkey and baking pies (pumpkin, apple, mince) scented candles, and fragrances like jasmine, tea rose, gardenia, and vanilla and lavender.

TASTES vary with our taste buds but my favorites include peppermint, egg nog, fruitcake, cranberry salad,  candied yams, Cool Whip on every dessert, chocolate truffles, white chocolate bonbons, crisp bacon and French toast, gingerbread, brownies and licorice caramels.

TOUCH can be a feeling that you get when you use your hands to applaud, to play the piano or the harp, drums, violin, wrap a gift, place the star on top of the tree, respond to the silky, smooth and soft blankets, fleece, flannel, faux fur, velvet and velour; ear muffs, pashminas and knit neck scarves. To apply make-up, wash your hair, cuddle with your pets, and wash and dry the dishes or fold the fresh-smelling laundry. And being able to hug and shake hands in person. We remember every sensation we felt after our first kiss, first prom, first car, first award.

Spice Theory: A Third Dimension

“Variety is the Spice of Life”. Use them to conjure a connection for the characters. I asked some students, “If you were a spice what would it be?” Answers included pepper, oregano, cayenne, curry, mustard, dill, bay leaf, basil, mint, rosemary and thyme. SAGE was my response. I like the color green, the delicate fragrance, and the word connotes wisdom.

Several years ago I interviewed Hilary B. Smith, a soap star and acting coach. She offered this advice. “Develop a character from the script and life experience as a recipe for a cake. Go into your spice cabinet which is YOU. The spices are either good or bad. Learn how to improve them. If you find a recipe that calls for a spice you may not have, mix a couple of spices with some you have to get the same flavor. Understand your strengths and your weaknesses and your passion. Own the best recipe for your needs. You may need to work more on your spices. Always keep taking an inventory to change, evolve and grow.”

“Memory is the power to gather roses in winter.”

In “My Favorite Things”, Maria recalls the joy she felt remembering and connecting with the best things in life. There is no price tag for snowflakes or the raindrops pitter-pattering on the leaves, or being cast in a Nativity play, or the moment when you knew your true calling was in the performance arts.

When the teenaged Luisa sings “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” in The Fantasticks she feels love for the first time. That experience is so special that she wants to ‘hug herself till her arms turn blue”..and shut her eyes and “cry and cry” and taste her tears”. Her senses are on fire. I might add here that crying and crying reminds me of Alice’s (in Wonderland) tears which became a drowning pool.

Emily’s poignant speech from heaven in Our Town is an ode to her home in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. “Goodbye to clocks ticking, mother’s sunflowers, food, coffee and freshly pressed dresses and hot baths. And sleeping and waking up…”

The final line always leaves me on the verge of my own tears. Perhaps ‘welling up’ is more to the point.

“Oh Earth you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you!”

The wonder that Emily feels when she says “Just for a moment now we’re all together; Just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another. It goes so fast.” And Luisa’s premonition about “the leaves, the wind, and the smell of the velvet rain’ indicate an awareness of a wisdom beyond their years, a purity of instinct’. We never can forget the ‘child’ within us.

A great Polish theatre and film director once wrote: “There is no great actor without a soul. Long hard work, a lot of time and experience and the complete possession of all the five senses in various situations.”

When the brilliant Cicely Tyson prepared to play Carrie Watts in Trip To Bountiful, she wrote in her autobiography Just as I am. “I made plans to visit Texas to sink into the research. I approach every role as if it will be my only one. I’ve got to experience the smells, the tastes, the feeling of where Mrs. Watts lived. How can you project a character, if you don’t know where she’s from?”

The development of faith in your imagination and the power of emotional memory and curiosity will be explored in Part Two.


Mari Lyn Henry

MARI LYN HENRY, author, teacher, actor and theatre historian founded the Society for the Preservation of Theatrical History to reacquaint today’s actors with the great actresses and visionaries of the 19th and early 20th centuries. SocietyPTH.com

Her workshops on on-camera techniques, script analysis, auditioning and impression management have been very successful in cities and universities across the country. CAREER INTELLIGENCE Seminars about “The Business of the Business” are based on her best-selling book How To Be A Working ActorHowtobeaworkingactor.com

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