Images: The Actor’s Hidden Power | How to use Images in Acting

Images: The Actor’s Hidden Power

Written by on | Acting Dictionary

I’ve started teaching a beginners acting class recently, and the one thing that has really made a difference between those actors who are struggling in the class and those who are starting to find some truth and success is how they are using images. Your imagination is the most powerful tool you have as an actor and it is absolutely vital for creating a believable performance. The great acting teacher Stanford Meisner described acting as “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances” and I think he is spot on, to do that, to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances is going to require you to have an active and specific imaginative life for every part of your text.

“living truthfully under imaginary circumstances”
– Sanford Meisner

A little test…

Heres an example of how specific and powerful your imagination is and how specific and powerful it can be for your next role. Think about your favourite food, got it? Okay now, close your eyes and think about the first time you ate it, or if not the first, the best time. Why was it the best? How did eating that thing make you feel? Describe really quickly, where you were, what time of day it was, what the sensation of the taste was like. See how incredibly specific your imagination is? Doing that took me right back to eating the most extraordinary Koh Sok curry in Northern Thailand with a close friend in the pouring rain.

Your character has an imagination as vivid and as powerful as this, you need to get as specific about your characters imagery as you are with your own memories. If you fancy diving in for a bit of Chubbuck style substitution as a means to make it more personal, you can totally do that! I will go into some more detail about how I go about that later in this article, but first, let’s talk about the different types of images in a script.

Primary images

Primary images are specific memories or descriptions of people, places or things in your script. An easy example of this is in Shakespeare’s iconic Sonnet 18: ‘Shall I compare thee to a summers day?’ The primary image in there is the summers day, right? Therefore the actor or speaker needs to have a personalised, clear, idea of what a summers day looks like. And, given that he has compared his passionate love interest to this summers day, it has to be pretty damn perfect. Now whether you use your imagination completely, to imagine an absolutely perfect summers day for Romeo or you the actor pull a memory of a perfect afternoon from your childhood really doesn’t matter.

What matters is, that you have an image in your brain for that moment. If you think it, the audience will see it. You do not need to show the audience that you have an image and it’s beautiful you just need to see it in your imagination at that moment. By having a specific image to refer to you will bring to life the characters history and their emotional life into view for the audience. Additionally, by using your images on the fourth wall of the theatre, or on the opposite side of the camera lens you can let the audience see a different side of you.

Secondary Images

Secondary images are a more abstract concept, derived from the work of Brazilian theatre practitioner, Augusto Boal. The idea here is that every line, every word and even every silence can have an image attached. Additionally, this technique mixed with some substitution can prove to be a powerful emotional trigger for an actor. Let’s look at another Shakespeare example – this time from Romeo and Juliet. Later in the play, Juliet says ‘Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?’ now the primary image in this line is her husband Romeo right, the actress should have a very clear image of him and what he means to her for that part of the line. But as an exercise or to help heighten an emotional state, secondary images could be attached to the rest of the line.

“Shall I’ could be a sickly green blob pushing at the actress’s neck, ‘speak ill’ could be a black twisting shadow above the other actors head. ‘Him that is my husband’ could be a white halo hanging off the lighting rig. So forth and so on. You can see how the creation of these images could be an effective tool for moving the scene around the stage and eliciting a visceral emotional response to the text. As with every acting technique, this may not work for you, but give it a go to see how it makes you feel!


Substitution is an exceptionally powerful tool for an actor, and substitution and imagery combined are an awesome combo (I think at least!) Substitution is an Ivana Chubbuck technique and its sort of a midway point between Strasberg’s Method acting, i.e. experiencing working as someone in a cafe before you play a waiter and Adler’s power of the imagination. My bastardised interpretation of it is this; when Romeo talks about Juliet he’s talking about someone he is deeply in love with. If I was to play Romeo, I would talk about Juliet but think about my girlfriend who I love or another person that elicits a strong emotion – hell even a sportsperson I felt a strong emotion for!

It doesn’t matter who that person is, it matters that you can clearly see them in your imagination and that your relationship to that real person is the same or similar to the person you are talking about in the text! The same goes for my summer day example in primary images, I would think about my most recent perfect summers day and throw that image out on the fourth wall of the space for the audience to experience. Personalised images give the audience the opportunity to experience that moment with you, and therefore the character. They are extremely powerful and great fun too!


So there you have it, images! They are so powerful and so important for everything we do as actors. I have mainly dealt with them in terms of theatre, but the same applies for film! Just instead of using the fourth wall, use the opposite side of the lens with your eyes. Give it a go with your camera at home, do a monologue and throw a few images across to the other side of the lens! It’s awesome. Hopefully, you’ve found some useful additions to your acting toolbox here and if you’d like to get in the habit of practising your images, why not sign up to our online Stagemilk Scene Club.

About the Author

Patrick Cullen

Patrick is an actor, writer, comedian and podcaster based in Sydney, Australia. A graduate of the Actors Centre Australia in 2014, Patrick has been working in film, TV and theatre across Sydney and Brisbane ever since. Patrick can be found glued to test cricket in bars across the land.

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