Sensory Isolation and Exploration in Creating an Environment

Photo from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Weber State University, March 2017, Directed and Choreographed by Cody Walker.

From Jeremiah Downes

Singing actors must do their very best to live truthfully under the imaginary circumstances of the play, and the song. This exercise is designed to isolate the five primary senses and to excite the imagination. It uses imagined sensory experiences and the actor’s visceral responses to these experiences to create the song’s environment.

Students will approach every song through the following steps, in isolation. I highly recommend having students do one sensory exploration for each of the senses per class (i.e.; every student explores taste in Monday’s class and we move on to sight together in the next class, through all five primary senses).

“Oh, What A Beautiful Morning” from Oklahoma! will be used as an example. Through all of the senses except for sight, it is recommended that student’s keep their eyes closed, focusing as best they can on the primary sense for that day’s work. It’s also recommended that student’s perform songs in their entirety; this leads to greater success and yields more creative results and responses because the actor has time to let their imagination flower.

Exercise 1: Taste

Taste buds, located on the tongue, are primarily responsible for the body’s intake of information and processing the results brought to the brain through the sensory organs on the tongue. Other factors that impact taste are smell and temperature. Students are encouraged to make a list of all of the tastes they would associate with the environment of their song. In “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning,” an actor may encounter the following tastes:

The taste of dry, hot air mixed with dust and pollen as it makes its way through the air hitting the back of your throat.

  • Freshly churned butter atop freshly picked and cooked corn and biscuits.
  • The smooth, but slightly tangy taste of fresh milk.
  • The taste, and cough, of unexpected smoke blown your way from the campfire.
  • Refreshing, cold tea with freshly squeezed lemon drunk from a glass jar.
  • The taste of hot sweat off your upper lip.

The actor is asked to close their eyes and begin the song. The instructor finds moments to suggest the various tastes (those listed above, or others of your own creation) as sidecoaching to the actor while performing. Teacher, performer, and classmates should observe the effects of each on the actor’s voice, face and body.

How does the imagination cause the actor to react during their performance of the song? Do certain tastes yield a greater or lesser response? Do certain tastes seem to support the actor’s investment and imagining of the world around them? Do certain tastes take the actor “out of the moment?” Do certain tastes illicit an unexpected reaction (laughter, tears, frustration).


Exercise 2: Smell

Smell typically yields some of the strongest reactions and results from actors. The hundreds of receptors in the nose send messages about smell to the brain. As we age, sensory receptors for other senses die and do not regenerate; the sense of smell remains strong. All of us associate very specific memories and feelings to certain smells.

Follow the same steps for this as for the previous exercise. Here are some possible smell explorations for sidecoaching “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning”:

  • The smell of hot wheat on the wind.
  • An empty, old barn; the worn wood, hay, dirt and leather.
  • Cow manure.
  • Freshly baked pie.
  • Lavender perfume.
  • The air after a summer rain.
  • Grass.
  • Freshly washed linens.


Exercise 3: Touch

Our bodies have receptors that respond to pressure, duration of pressure, and temperature, and information is sent from the nervous system to the brain. For this part of the exercise students are asked to collect tangible items for use in their isolation. For our Oklahoma! example, consider:

  • A piece of worn leather.
  • Canvas or burlap.
  • Hay/grass/wood.
  • A glass jar.
  • A frying pan.
  • A clothespin
  • Freshly washed cotton.


Exercise 4: Hearing

Because hearing is rooted primarily in perception but based on a variety of complex anatomical construction in the ear drum, canal, middle ear and fluid-filled inner ear, our sensory responses to sounds are like our fingerprints, unique to each individual. List of sounds to be explored for “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning” includes:

  • Cowbell, and slow mooing from the nearby pasture.
  • Wind through field and trees.
  • The early morning chirping of birds.
  • The burble of a nearby creek.
  • The sound of a hammer nailing wood
  • The sounds of firewood being split


Exercise 5: Sight

Sight comes from two primary receptors in the eye that filter light, and send signals through the optic nerve to the brain. For the purposes of this exercise, there are two phases of the sight exploration: (1) a list should be compiled of sight-driven images sidecoached to the actor with eyes closed, as with the previous four exercises; and (2) sidecoaching the actor with eyes open, receiving instruction as to when to “see” each image.

The sight-driven images from this list can be environmental (the imagined setting for the song) or contextual (images that relate to the song but are not environmental):

  • A sun bleached field of endless wheat, the heat hazing the air (environmental).
  • A sepia tintype of a solo cowboy (related).
  • Pale blue linens flapping in the wind on a long, strong clothesline (environmental).
  • The Oklahoma State flag, rough and tattered (related). 

Observations and discussions about each of these five observations and responses should be discussed (there are no wrong answers; a singing actor’s thoughts and responses to a sensory isolation may be abstract in one moment and objective, clear and specific in the next moment). Observers can share insight from watching their classmates perform.


Singing the Punctuation

From Jeremy Mossman

Without looking to see what is actually in the libretto or sheet music, have students sing the song, bringing out whatever punctuation they think is there. This should be done exaggeratedly: more than they normally would.

Now have students scan the lyrics and analyze the sentence structure as it is written, paying special attention to the punctuation marks and syntax. When that is finished, have student speak both the lyrics of the song and the punctuation marks out loud (saying the words comma, question mark, exclamation mark, period, etc. as they occur in the lyrics).

Finally, have students sing the song again, maintaining an awareness of both the location and intention of each punctuation mark. As with other, similar exercises, a careful scrutiny of what is actually on the page will lead to discoveries about the song and insight as to authorial intention.


Acting is Physical 

From Douglas S. Hall

My acting teacher, Charles Kakatsakis, always said that acting was a physical sport. I find it true that if I can engage students’ bodies while they are singing, the work is better.


Exercise 1: Don't Go

Have the presenting student pick a scene partner. The scene partner should empty out their backpack on the floor.

The instructions for the scene partner are to “re-pack your backpack and leave the room.” In contrast, the singer’s job is to keep their scene partner in the room. Aside from actually hurting their scene partner, the singer can do anything necessary to keep them there.

The first round usually goes like this: the singer stands back, sings the song the way they always have and watches as their partner packs up and leaves.

I ask what happened and the singer says, “They didn’t stop.”

I say, “What are you going to do about that? It’s your job it is keep them here.” 

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“I don’t know, but what you just did didn’t work, so, clearly, not that.”

“Can I go over to them?”

“Yes!” I say. “I said you can do anything except actually hurt them.”

I don’t suggest any actions because I want students to think creatively and engage in their own problem solving. And the next round usually goes better. The singer starts again and approaches their scene partner and with some encouragement, they will usually take away the partner’s backpack, stand in their way, block the door, preventing packing, etc.

Obviously, this is chaotic and is not the way to actually perform the song. It is not meant to be. It is only meant to generate some physical action. Do keep a close eye on things so that the physicality does not get out of hand.

After I’ve used the pack-up-and-leave exercise a few times it loses its efficacy for the rest of the class. So, I need to find another way.


Exercise 2: Paper Balls

I have all the students in the class ball up pieces of paper. While a student is singing, the rest of the class pelts them with balled up paper. The singer must pick up and throw the paper balls back at the audience. This exercise works with songs it actually fits (“Get Out and Stay Out” or “You Don’t Know This Man”), but it has also gotten results with “Love Is Here To Stay.”

If a singer gives up in defeat, I stand on the side and coach, “WIN! Don’t take that from them, win the battle!” Students may feel the frustration of being pitted against the whole class, or, if they’ve managed to score a couple good hits themselves, they may feel victorious. When I ask, how was that? I get answers like “I got so mad!” or “I wanted to nail them!” They understand now what it feels like to have an authentic experience with strong physical involvement.

Finally, have the singer do the song again, but take away the paper balls. Now, everyone must do the exact same thing, but with invisible balls. The physical act of throwing is still present, but there are no objects. Then we take away the physical action but keep the intent (to win, to score, to return all the balls). Students should imagine they are throwing the balls. This is the most difficult state to maintain, and may take some sidecoaching. But the result is a very alive, physically engaged performance.


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