Guided Imagery

This is a technique similar to narrative pantomime, but simultaneously simpler and more sophisticated.  It has a lot in common with some kinds of meditation and relaxation techniques.  Guided Imagery exercises help young actors explore the imaginative use of the five senses in creating the environment of a role.  Students learn to relax and concentrate fully.  They learn to focus their sensory and emotional selves in role.  In addition, Guided Imagery exercises can help students to create stories that can then be developed in other ways.  In Guided Imagery, the students usually do not move.  They sit quietly, usually with their eyes closed (darkening the room can help), and experience the "story" of the exercise on a deep sensory level, not trying to "act it out" in any way.  This is often difficult for students to grasp at first, and depending on the individual characteristics of a group it may be necessary to modify the requirements.  However, once a group can be induced to buy into the concept, they nearly always respond enthusiastically.


The simplest way to explain how Guided Imagery works is to write down exactly what I might say to a class in performing the exercise.  I should point out that while I include two specific storylines here, you can create your own on virtually any topic, from the general to the very specific, provided only that your storylines include lots of opportunities for use of the senses and sufficient room for the imaginative contributions of the participants.


(As I narrate the exercise, I pause whenever necessary to allow the thinking and feeling called for to happen.)


The Trip

For this exercise everyone must find your own comfortable space.  I will be telling a story, in which the main character is you.  As you listen to the story, you must imagine that it is actually happening to you.  You should concentrate especially on your five senses--your sense of touch, your sense of smell, your sense of taste, your sense of sight and your sense of hearing.  You will not be actually moving around or "acting out" the story--this isn't that kind of exercise.  Instead, you will be using your senses in your imagination to experience the story.


It will be extremely important as our story unfolds that you do not make any sounds.  Your classmates will be trying very hard to listen to the sounds in their imaginations, and real sounds will make that very difficult.  Similarly, of course, you must not move around or touch anyone else in the room.  Concentrate on your senses in your imagination.


To begin our story, I want you to think of a place that is just yours.  It might be your room, or if you share a room, your special part of the room.  It might be a fort or a special place outside that you like.  You will decide what the place is, but it should be a place that is private and special to you.


Imagine that you are in your special place now.  Look around.  Look carefully.  Use your sense of sight to take in all of the details you can--even the ones you may never have noticed before.  Maybe there are little cracks in the ceiling, if there is a ceiling.  Maybe there are colors or textures you've never noticed before.  It's amazing how many things we see every day but never really see.  Now listen.  Listen to all the special sounds in your special place.  Even a very quiet place has lots of sounds if you really listen.  Maybe there is the sound of your house shifting.  Maybe there is traffic away in the distance.  I don't know.  You must listen for the special sounds of your place.  And smells.  Nearly everything in the world has its own smell.  Maybe you've never noticed the smells of your special place, but I'll bet they feel comfortable and safe.  See if you can identify several smells.  Wood has a smell.  Earth has a smell.  Your place probably smells like you, too.  Really breathe in the smells of your special place.  The air may even have a taste--see if it does.  Now take your hand and touch various things in your space.  Feel the textures and temperatures of your space.  Are the surfaces rough or smooth?  Warm or cool?  Damp or dry?  Really explore your space with your sense of touch.


Now, as you sit in your special place, I want you to think of a trip you would like to take.  Think of someplace else you might like to go.  It might be someplace very close by or someplace halfway around the world.  You must choose for yourself.  As you sit in your space, go over in your mind how you would have to travel to get to this other place.  For some of you, the whole trip could be made on foot.  Some of you will realize you'd have to take a car, and some probably even a plane or a boat.  For all I know, some of you might need a spaceship.  But I want you to carefully think of all the steps your travel would take.  For instance, if you would have to take a plane, you would first have to get in a car or a taxi, then drive to the airport, etc.  Think of all the steps.


We've decided to take the trip.  It is time to pack our bags.  Since only you know where you're going and how long you'll be gone, only you know what you will need to pack.  So get out a suitcase or bag--whatever seems appropriate--and begin to pack.  As you place each item in the suitcase or bag, examine it carefully with your five senses.  What color is it?  Does it have a smell?  Is it heavy or light?  If you shake it, does it make a sound?  Does it have a texture?  We're going to take the time to really pack carefully.


Now that we're going to begin our actual trip, you may find you have to speed up or slow down time in order to keep up with the story.  If your trip is very short, you may have to slow down time, but most of us will probably have to speed up time.


Imagine you are now on the first leg of your journey.  I don't know what that is--it will be different for each of you.  But as you travel along, use your five senses.  What are the sights you see?  The sounds you hear?  The smells you smell?  What physical sensations are there?  Are there any taste sensations?  Really EXPERIENCE this part of the journey.


Okay, now here's where some of you may need to speed up or slow down time.  Imaging you are exactly half way to your destination.  Many of you are probably in a different kind of transport now, though some of you may be in the same one.  Once again, use your five senses.  What do you see?  Hear?  Taste?  Smell?  Feel?


Now let's imagine we have arrived just outside our destination.  That may mean different things for each of you.  If your destination has a gate or is indoors behind a door, imagine you are just outside the door or gate.  If your destination is just a general place--say, the desert--imagine you are in some sort of transport, about to step out, and "into" the place.  In any case, before we enter our destination, we're going to stop and use our senses again.  From outside, what does the place look like?  Sound like?  Smell like?  What do you think it will feel like inside?


Okay, it's finally time to enter.  Once inside, I don't know what you're going to do--I don't even know where you are.  But as we take some time just to experience this new place, remember to carefully consider what your five senses are telling you.  There will probably be lots of new sights, sounds, sensations, smells, and tastes to experience.


As you do whatever it is you came here to do, I want you to think for a minute.  Who is the very last person you would ever expect to meet in this place?  The most unlikely person to ever be here?  In your mind's eye, recall what this person looks like, sounds like, etc.


Suddenly you look up, and there they are!  You are certainly surprised to see them, but I don't know whether it's a good surprise of a bad surprise.  I don't know who they are or how you feel about them.  You may be glad to see them, or you may wish they would go away.  As you look at them, and try to see as many details as you can, they speak.  Listen to their voice.  What does it sound like?  What are they saying?


I don't know if you speak back, or if you do, what you say.  I don't know what, if anything, the two of you do.  This part of the story is up to you.


Finally the person leaves.  I don't know why, but you know.  I don't know whether you caused them to leave, but you know.  I don't know whether you're glad or sad to see them go.  But at any rate, now that they're gone you realize it's time for you to go, too.  As you leave the place, take one last look.  Try to remember all of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch sensations you can for your trip home.


We're going to compress time again, and imagine we're half way home.  What sights do you see?  What smells do you smell?  What sounds do you hear?  What tastes do you taste?  What sensations do you feel?


Something has gone wrong.  I don't know what it is--that's up to you, but something pretty serious.  I don't know if the problem is something you can see or not.  Maybe the problem has a sound associated with it.  Maybe there is a smell.  You can probably feel something as well.  Whatever the problem is, no one seems to know what to do about it.


Finally you are able to solve the problem.  I don't know how you did it.  Does your solution have any sounds or smells associated with it?  What do you see and feel?  At any rate, you certainly feel relief, as we once again speed up or slow down time to arrive just outside our special place--home.


Before you go inside, see how many details of your special place you can recall.  Then when you go in you will see how many of them you remembered correctly.  It's been a long day, and a long trip, and you are tired.  So you go into your special place and sleep.



Once the story is finished--I almost always end with the main character in repose--I have the students do some brief stretching exercises to get the blood flowing again, and then we have a discussion.  Usually I have some or all of the students describe their adventure in detail.  We talk about the fact that even though I told the same story to everyone, no two students came up with the same, or even very similar, stories.  I point out to them that the creative force responsible for making the stories they have experienced was not mine, but came from them.  So the stories now belong to them, and they  can use them in any way they want.  They can write them down as short stories, plays, or poems.  They can make pictures of them, or write songs about them.  They can make videos or improvise skits.  I tell them (which is the truth) that this kind of quiet imagery is often the way I come up with the stories and details I use in my own writing.  But most importantly, we discuss how effectively we were able to use our five senses in our imaginations.  Usually the students are surprised they were able to remember and experience so many details of the familiar parts of their stories--such as the "special place"--and equally surprised at the vividness of the sensations in the original parts of the story.  (The exception to this is that if the group has had trouble keeping quiet, no one will have been able to really hear the sounds in their stories clearly, and the stories will be more similar than otherwise, since their sounds will have caused them to influence each other.  If this is the case, we discuss it.)  This exercise is much more effective if time is left for discussion at the end.


Below is another storyline I use with my students in Guided Imagery exercises.  Again, remember that you can always create your own.  The introduction and discussion afterwards are just the same.  (This storyline might work as a narrative pantomime as well.)



You are a small, burrowing animal.  In fact, you are a newly born baby animal, and have so far lived your entire life inside your burrow.  Your mother went down into the burrow last fall, and when spring began to make itself felt, you and your brothers and sisters were born.  Since it is completely dark in the burrow, you have never seen anything--in fact, you don't even really know what it would mean to see.  But you have four other senses, and you use them.


Listen to the sounds in the burrow.  You can probably hear your mother's heart beat, and possibly also your own and your brothers' and sisters'.  Maybe you all make some sounds as you move around in the burrow.  Smell the cool earth of the walls and floor, and smell that special smell that means "Mom."  Feel the hard-packed, cool walls of the burrow, and feel your mother and your brothers and sisters in this small space.


Just in the last day or so something has been changing.  The walls of the burrow are getting damper and warmer.  You don't know why, but Mom seems to sense a change.  It is time for her to open up the burrow.  It is spring.  Listen as she moves to the entrance of the burrow.  Feel the dirt hit you in the face as she digs away at the blocked entrance to the hole.  Taste the dirt that gets in your mouth.  She opens a small hole to the outside world.


For the first time in your life, you can see!  Look around you at the dimly lighted interior of the burrow.  For the first time, look at the others--your mother and brothers and sisters--with whom you have spent your entire short life.  Look up at the bright circle of light that Mom is making bigger and bigger.


Suddenly Mom disappears out the hole.  You don't know what to do.  But then you hear a strange sound.  You've never heard such a sound before, but somehow you know exactly what it is.  It's Mom saying, "come on out!"


As you climb out of the burrow, feel the new earth under your feet.  Smell the outdoor air.  Suddenly the sun is so bright you're temporarily blinded.  As you grow used to the brightness, you see that the hole is in the center of a large expanse of grass, like a meadow of a field.  You start to explore the area around the hole.  As you explore, you use all of your senses.  You investigate things with your eyes.  You smell them.  You touch them.  You listen to them.  You even taste them.  You discover that clover is very tasty.  You discover that your brothers and sisters are not.


So far, you have been staying pretty close to the burrow, but now you notice something at the other end of the grassy area.  I don't know what it is, and neither do you, but it's pretty big.  You are overcome with curiosity.  You start to cross the grass, to take a closer look.


As you go, feel the grass moving under your feet.  Smell the sweet spring air.  Taste any new plants you come across on your journey.  Listen to the sounds of the much bigger world you have discovered.  But keep your eyes on the big thing.


You arrive, and carefully investigate the big thing.  Smell it.  If it seems safe, taste it.  Look it over carefully, listen to the sounds it makes, and touch it carefully.  Try to learn as much as possible about the thing.


Suddenly you hear a sound from across the grass.  You've never heard that sound before, but you instinctively know what it is.  It's Mom saying, "Everybody in the hole!  Now!"  You run across the grass and dive down the hole just as Mom starts filling in the top with grass and dirt to hide it.


You spent almost your whole life in this hole, and it always felt warm and cozy and safe.  But now it feels cramped and dark.  One of your brothers or sisters is standing on your head, and there's hardly any room to move around.  But for now, you'll have to stay down here, so you make the best of it and take a nap.