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Week 7

7. Imagination

Imagination (Visualization) and Film of Images

In Stanislavsky’s system, imagination is the ability to create and see mental pictures at will. It is also called visualization and creative imagination. Film of Images is a continual flow of visual pictures, both those related to the given circumstances of the character and also relevant emotionally evocative images for the actor.

Stanislavski’s system places great value on the capacity of the actor to treat fictional situations as if they were real. The method of developing the imagination for which Stanislavski is renowned is the ‘magic if’. Stanislavski developed this technique from a game that he used to play with his niece. The actors were handed a certain object and then would have to change their relationship with the object or to change what the object is in their minds. For example, if an actor was given a hairbrush, he would have to imagine that it was a different object like a toothbrush or an ice-cream. This exercise was to develop the actor’s ability to believe in imaginative objects or situations. This area also dealt with Stanislavski’s acknowledgement of the actor’s dual consciousness. By dual consciousness, Stanislavski  meant that even though the actor knows that the set, props and given circumstances on stage are false, the actor asks himself: “What if they were real?”

Strasberg did not believe that Stanislavski’s ‘magic if’ was always effective. Strasberg felt that “it often leads the actor to an imitation of what he thinks he would do” (Strasberg, 1987: 52). Strasberg did, however, believe in the importance of Stanislavski’s recognition of the actor’s dual nature. Stanislavski also felt that visualization invigorates the imagination. What is meant by ‘visualization’ is the actor’s inner vision of the play and his character. Stanislavski placed a lot of emphasis on the point that an actor must not act without an image and clear picture of ‘the given circumstances’ in his mind’s eye.

The ‘magic if’ could be seen as the starting point of the imagination and the ‘given circumstance’ is the fuel that keeps the imagination active in the creative process. In An Actor Prepares Tortsov, the acting teacher, give his students an imaginary scenario. He told them that they are in an apartment and there is a madman knocking at the door who wants to enter the room and cause them harm. The elements of the given circumstances, listed above, of the scenario are then given to the students to help them create their own picture. For instance, before the students lived in the imagined apartment, an insane man lived there. He had escaped from the mental institute where the authorities had taken him and now he was standing at the door. Tortsov then asks the students to use the ‘magic if’ to arouse true feelings from the students by asking them what they would do IF there was a madman behind the door. Asking this question immediately incites the performer into action. The students then reacted in the way suitable to their imaginary situation and according to their inner justification and motivation. If the students really used their imagination, they would soon feel fear and excitement or any fitting emotion that arises.

The actor must develop his skills to such a degree that he can control his skills of relaxation, concentration, imagination and communication. The only way for the actor to gain control over his instrument and these skills is to practise each skill individually.

The “Magic If" Definition: The “magic if” is an evocative question that stimulates imagination and leads to action.

Explanation: It is the key to activating the given circumstances by stimulating appropriate thoughts and behavioral responses. When building an improvisation or actively analyzing the actions and circumstances of a play, ask, “What would I do if today, here and now, for the first time, I were in these circumstances?” As you move further from self and into character in the course of your training and rehearsals, you can add the phrase, “and if I were a person like this, in this character’s shoes, in this time period, country, etc.” The supposition “if” is used during conditioning exercises and training improvisations, as well as during rehearsals, in order to discover the character’s behavior. It is also used moment-to-moment during a performance to keep you alive and present and responding to obstacles through inventive and appropriate adaptations.

The first step to evoke imagination is getting rid of habitual patterns.

Exercise: Mirroring Movement Patterns


  • Each person finds a partner and designates one as A and one as B.

  • A moves about as B observes.

  • Then B follows A, trying to approximate A’s movement patterns. Try to notice where the person moves fluidly and where he carries tension.

  • B demonstrates the movement and stance they observed in A.

  • Repeat the exercises, reversing the roles so that each actor has both observed and been mirrored.

Variations of this exercise can be found and easily applied.

Exercise: Assuming and Conveying Status

Main action: To greet


  • Each actor takes one card from a pile of playing cards (from which all face cards have been removed).

  • The actor looks at the card secretly and then holds it to her chest so as not to let others in the class see it. This number is the actor’s status, with the ace being lowest and the 10 highest.

  • The actor then fulfills the action “to greet” using only the words “How do you do?” They can color the words and actions with any additional nonverbal cues to express status.

  • After everyone has greeted everyone else, the class lines up from ace to 10 as best as possible. Then, all show their cards to see how well they assessed their status in relationship to others.

Exercise: Endowing and Receiving Status

  • Take a new card from the pile but don’t look at it.

  • This time, holding the card with your left hand and facing out, place it on

  • your third eye (the middle of your forehead between and just above the

  • eyebrows).

  • Fulfill the action to greet as in the previous exercise, except that this time you must receive your status from how others treat you.

  • Line up to assess how well you received the communication of your status.

Building Spacial and Individual Relations

Exercise: Group Mirroring

Purpose: Communion through unified movement and soft focus


  • Stand in a circle.

  • Try to see each person without looking directly at anyone. It is best to use a “soft focus,” as you might do to see the twinkling holiday lights that look slightly fuzzy and diffused, but be very alert to the slightest nuance of movement.

  • Notice subtle movements of others and respond to them subtly at first, in your own way or by imitation. Try to follow the flow of the movements you sense but keep your focus on the entire group.

  • As a group, see if you can get a sense of what movements you are doing together without looking directly at anyone.

  • Eventually, you may find that the movements of the group become unified.

  • Try not to lead or follow but to stay tuned into the group.

  • If the instructor can easily tell that someone is leading, release and start again.

Exercise: Communicating Relationships through the Language of the Body

Purpose: To develop specificity in relationships and allow them to color simple actions. 


  • Build in your mind an imaginary relationship with everyone else; deciding who that person is to you, whether or not you know her, what the status of that person is in relation to you, what you think and feel about the individual, and whether or not you like her.

  • The action is to greet someone: One person at a time greets each individual in silence and must find typical behavior in the form of walking, gestures, and facial expressions to clearly express the circumstances you have selected.

  • The class then gives feedback by sharing what relationships were clearly expressed and projected.

Exercise Example: Communicating Attitude


  • Begin to walk around the room, and as you pass one another make eye contact. Look directly into one another’s eyes and pause a moment.

  • At that moment make up an imaginary attitude toward that person and emit your thoughts while receiving theirs.

  • Make no facial or physical gesture, just the thought.

  • Continue to walk around the room until you have sent and received at least one thought from each person

Now, share with the group what you experienced: Did you pick up what was sent to you? How did that make you feel, and what sensations went through your body? Anything else?

Exercise: Sharing Images with Prana

Purpose: Actors must become sensitive to one another’s thoughts and feelings. This is an exercise in sending and receiving vibrational energy by means of strong intention. This is an exercise Stanislavsky and his collaborator in the first studio of the Moscow Art Theatre, Leopold Shulerzisky, developed to try to feel and communicate prana. It is important not to push or strain to send a thought, as tension defeats the purpose of the exercise. It is a mental discipline of will and intention that we are striving to cultivate, so never feel that you need to force it.


  • Bring your chairs into the acting arena and place them opposite one another about three feet apart. Sit down facing one another and decide who is A and who is B.

  • Begin by taking a few deep breaths.

  • Use your internal monitor to mentally scan your body for any points of tension or pain while continuing to breathe into those areas with long, deep breaths and slowly exhaling through your mouth.

  • When you feel quite comfortable, place your consciousness (inner gaze), at the point between the eyebrows, but keep your eyes open. Imagine a place you lived, a house or apartment, it doesn’t matter, and in your imagination take a tour of it, noticing every small detail. Take your time. Recall the people and events that took place. Sense of the atmosphere and mood that arises from the environment.

  • A, gaze into your partner B’s eyes and, without any tension or effort, will yourself to open up and share your thoughts, sensations, and feelings of this memory with your partner. Make no conscious attempt to read your partner’s mind, simply open up and send your energy while simultaneously receiving your partner’s energy. Observe what you are experiencing.

  • Reverse and have B communicate her images to A.

After three minutes have passed, the instructor asks the students to share with their partners what they experienced, then asks who would like to share their experience with the group.

Exercise: Communicating Relationships, Events, and Meaning

Purpose: To use your eyes and body language to transmit thoughts and feelings to your partners. (Never force facial expressions, as that becomes indicative (fake) and creates tension.) The goal is to establish nonverbal communication through mental and physical action.

Guidelines: The improvisations are to be performed by three persons, and primarily in justified silence.

  • Three persons are at a busy public place, such as an airport or bus terminal. Two are spies and one is a detective.

  • One spy has a twofold task: try and assess who is the contact spy and pass a secret microchip to him.

  • The contact spy who is to receive the chip must attempt to figure out who of the other two persons onstage is to pass the document to him.

  • The detective’s objective is to prevent the passing of the chip and make an arrest (but he can only make an arrest if he catches them in the act).

Note: The instructor will tell each actor who he is and what his task is privately. The students may decide where the action takes place but must not reveal themselves or their task to one another. The action ends with the arrest made by the detective who may say, “You are under arrest!” The improvisation may end if both spies succeed in passing the secret chip and exit before they are caught.

Exercise: Rope Bridge

Purpose: To establish an Ensemble Communion; To truthfully use your imagination and to build circumstances, see images, use your memory of sensations, and express relationships. 

Guidelines: The Given Circumstances:

  • While seated or lying down on the floor, close your eyes and relax all of your muscles from head to toe. Take a few deep breaths and scan your body for tension, inhaling into the points of tension and releasing the tension with your exhalation.

  • With closed eyes, use vivid imagination to build the following situation: You are on an expedition to search for the lost tomb of a Mayan king in the jungles of the Yucatán. Be specific as to your area of scientific interest, or your alternate role on the expedition.

  • You and your comrades have been hiking through the jungle for days, and have come to an impassable gorge, which is at least 1,000 feet deep. At the bottom of the gorge is a raging river. The only means of crossing the gorge is by an old rope bridge. The bridge is beginning to fall apart and has become unsafe. Its ropes are made of rotting twine, and the wooden planks are fragile, and many are missing.

  • The immediate problem: How can I ensure that everyone crosses the bridge safely?

  • Make sure that the imaginary wooden planks are in the same position as those whom you follow, and that the ropes you hold on to are at the same height. Observe one another carefully.

  • The environment is also unsafe, with snakes, poisonous insects, and hostile natives. The atmosphere is unbearably hot, humid, and thick with flying insects. Although you have been travelling for two days, you are still far from the supposed location of the tomb as shown on your guide map. You are tired, exhausted, and you may be hungry, injured, or ill.

  • Without discussion, in your mind build an imaginary relationship with each of the members of your party. See them clearly in your mind and decide whom you like and dislike and why. Why are you on this expedition? What do you hope to personally gain from it?

  • You must establish silent communion with everyone by watching each person and making sure that you are all working together so that the movement of the bridge and crossing it is an ensemble effort.

As a teacher and director observe and make notes for yourself in Reflection Journal:

Were you able to observe others and work together as an ensemble, a team? If not, why? Were students able to be consistent with their sense of memory and establish the circumstances clearly in mind? Did they see images in their imagination? Did they have real emotional responses to the images, imaginary circumstances, or the other people? If you were to do it again, what would you choose to do differently?


Write an essay replying to the following questions:

  • How do you think you as a director/teacher can help your performers to train their imagination?

  • How can we use the mechanisms of natural triggers to evoke our imagination?

  • How can you provoke actors to fresh and imaginative illustrations? What means are at your disposal as a director?

  • From your experience can you recall any exercises for the development of imagination? What were your favourites? Why did you like them? Did they felt complete? Were they gradually developing or a “straight to the result” exercises?

Research the topic of “Given Circumstances”. As a teacher and directors, this is something that will always be your tool to add “liveliness” to your performances even if they are performed every day for several weeks in a row.

A good example used by our teachers to demonstrate the power of the given circumstances is by asking an individual actor to bring the glass of water to the teacher. The given circumstance for the actor is to imagine that the one has a needle in a heel. For the second demonstration, the teacher asks to bring the glass of water and adds another layer of given circumstance: the actor shall imagine the needle in the heel and that the body is completely naked. The actor’s “performance” becomes a bit more lively. Then add the third layer, the forths, etc.

We suggest writing in your Directors Journal your ideas on different situations that can create interesting given circumstances for actors to create in, and when you need to pick one of them, they are at your direct disposal.

Deadline: 18 June


An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski p 47-61

The Michael Chekhov Handbook by Lenard Petit p.13-28 (this book would be very useful to read if you haven’t yet)

“To the Actor: On the Technique of Acting” by Michael Chekhov p. 21-34


Imagination, storytelling and the importance of wonder | Ollie Oakenshield | TEDxTruro

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