How to Develop Your Imagination as an Actor | How to Guide for Actors
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How to Develop Your Imagination as an Actor

Written by on | How-To Guides for Actors

If we were to oversimplify the process of developing our craft as actors, I’d say our two main areas of focus should be the following: technique and imagination. Technique speaks for itself; there are certain skills we need to develop as storytellers to be able to do our jobs effectively and efficiently. Imagination, on the other hand, is less tangible. It’s difficult to measure, and it may seem less crucial than our technical abilities, but the truth is that the imaginative quality of an actor is the factor that separates the good actors from the truly exceptional ones. 

However, ways to develop our imagination can be harder to access. When developing our technique, we have classes and exercises coming out of our ears to engage with, but for our imagination this is not always the case. Today let’s let our imaginations run wild and figure out a few ways we can develop it, and in doing so we may just become better actors. In this article, I’ll outline what’s at the core of imaginative development, why we should develop our imaginations, 7 actions to take for developing it and finally, a 7-day challenge to undertake for yourself and your own imaginative growth. 

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How Can You Develop Your Imagination?

So, what is at the core of this process? What is the one thing we need to do to start this journey of imaginative development? Allow me to be simple and clear: curiosity. Being curious is the foundation of all imaginative growth. Without curiosity we are fixed, we are unable to expand our minds and belief systems. This foundation factors into the fixed and growth mindset models I have harped on about before. Here’s a great breakdown of these two options you have: 

develop your imagination

This image outlines the two options for our mindset as human beings: a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. When it comes to the growth of our imagination, curiosity is at the centre.

By being curious, by questioning ourselves and the world around us, we are able to broaden our horizons of what is possible. In doing this, our imagination expands. I’ll go into more detail about the various ways and actions we can take to additionally improve our imaginations, but this first step is really the key to the whole process. As soon as we feel we ‘know’ something – the answer, the character – we are no longer a place where we may learn or grow. We must remain curious consistently. Without this we cannot hope to expand our imaginations an inch farther than they have already gone. So, why is this important? Why would we bother trying to develop our imaginations in the first place?

Why Should You Develop Your Imagination?

So why are we talking about this? What really is the benefit of striving to build our imaginations? The process of becoming a better actor can quickly become quite esoteric – all of a sudden we’ve gone from practising scenes to doing ‘animal work’, figuring out our personality position on the enneagram, or deciding which chakra we should move from. Each of these processes can be useful for individual actors, but one skill which is deeper and more potent than any of these things is empathy. As actors we need empathy to be able to understand our characters and what they are going through. We need empathy to connect to our characters and be able to portray them effectively. 

The definition of empathy is the following:

Empathy: noun – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Notice the difference between this definition and that of sympathy:

Sympathy: noun – feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.

Sympathy is directed towards something from a distance. Empathy by contrast is the immersion in someone’s experience. The ability to feel first hand what they are going through. This skill is crucial for actors, as our entire craft is about understanding and portraying lives which do not belong to us. And what is the key to empathy? Imagination. Without imagination, we cannot hope to put ourselves in the shoes of another. 

No matter how much we develop our technique, (all the technical elements of our performance: voice, physicality ect) without empathy, without imagination, our craft will be limited to our own experience of life. We will never be able to effectively portray the lives of others with any sophistication. 

To be able to act well we must be able to empathise. In order to empathise, we must truly have brilliant and curious imaginations. Curiosity leads to imagination. Imagination leads to empathy. Empathy is the key resource for the actor.

Ways to Develop Your Imagination

There are a number of ways you can develop your imagination.

#1 Engage With Other Art Forms

Art is the manifestation of the imagination. Art comes in many shapes and forms, just like the imaginations which form it. As actors, we can often fall into the trap of limiting our exposure to art to the forms which most closely apply to us. As actors we typically seek out the performative art forms: acting, singing, dancing, opera ect. All forms which involve a human being standing on a stage or being captured on screen and using their instrument (themselves) to tell a story. This is essential for us to do, but it’s also important that we expose ourselves to all the other ways imagination manifests itself in the world around us. 

We can develop our imagination by engaging with fine art – art on canvas or created as a sculpture. Music in all its forms and genres can be incredibly inspiring to engage with, and we should challenge ourselves to seek outside our comfort zones with the music we listen to. Do you love classical music? Listen to some punk rock. Are you a lover of all things rock n roll? Try listening to jazz, or latin music, or swing. Challenge yourself to push the boundaries of what you’re familiar with. All of these steps of exploration into new art forms will expand your perception of what’s possible in art, performance and storytelling. 

Other art forms you may not have considered for your development as an actor before include: Calligraphy, Architecture, Photography, (film photography!!) fashion design, interior design, street art, Japanese Taiko drumming, martial arts, and many more.

For me personally I started viewing my craft differently as an actor when I took up film photography as a hobby. Through the lens of my camera I was forced into a new perspective of the world. The medium required me to take my time, figure out how to tell a story through understanding the technique and what story I wanted to tell. 

It may seem counter intuitive, but sometimes stepping away from acting into the world is just the thing we need to re engage our imaginations and find new inspiration and creativity.

#2 Reading

I’m sure this is on half the self development lists across the world wide web, so I apologise if reading this point makes you roll your eyes – BUT, developing your reading habit is on all of these lists for good reason. It’s essential for so many things. Here are the top five benefits that came up for me when I searched online: 

  • Reading improves your brain connectivity
  • Reading improves your vocabulary and comprehension
  • Reading reduces stress and lowers your blood pressure and heart rate
  • Reading prevents cognitive decline as you age
  • Reading increases your ability to empathise with other people.

If those five reasons aren’t convincing enough for you, I don’t know what will be. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve battled my commitment and enthusiasm to read my whole life. I’ll go through patches of reading like a maniac and then extended periods where I don’t touch a book. I’ve gone outside the box, listening to audiobooks and even buying a Kindle to read 26 books at the same time, but for whatever reason, the habit will occasionally slip. This is ok and natural, I try not to beat myself up too much about it. But we must continue to strive to read as much as possible. Novels are incredibly useful for actors – the insight we get into the subtext of the story, the inner monologues of the characters and the filling in of the gaps we wouldn’t get in a film script or play are all of great value. Read non-fiction, too. Read history, philosophy. Read about economics or science or whatever thrills you or bewilders you. Again, curiosity is key – reading is the simplest and most effective way to engage with what it would be like to live a life which isn’t yours.

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” 

― Oscar Wilde

#3 Writing

Once you’ve spent some time with another person’s words, it’s time to write some of your own down! Writing, whether creating your own fiction or simply journaling your thoughts, is a fantastic way of cultivating the imagination and allowing it to run free. 

Putting pen to paper can be an intimidating hurdle to begin with. Rather than trying to write the next instalment of the Lord of the Rings, I’d highly advise new writers to start with a journal entry. Journaling can be a strange and foreign task at first, but once you’re past the first few days the benefits become really clear. Journalling is a form of therapy and has similar benefits to meditation (which we’ll come to next). 

Don’t worry about setting productivity goals for yourself or getting your writing to a place where you can share it with people. To begin with, just write. Write for you. Write weird, write free. Write a short story about something whacky and nonsensical. There’s no pressure and no risk, so why not give it a shot? 

The benefits of developing this skill obviously cascade for the actor, too. Maybe through writing you discover you actually feel really fulfilled by it and start writing scripts which you can also act in. Or maybe the process of writing gives you an insight into what scriptwriters are really trying to get across in their plays or screen plays? Writing can really only be beneficial for you as an actor, so I’d recommend you start it in any form today.

#4 Meditation

Our imagination is an incredibly powerful force. When the imagination is not tamed, it can actually become quite destructive. There are two sides to the coin of imagination, and only one side is worth trying to develop as actors. On one side, there is the side of our imagination which leads us down dark alleyways of resentment, self doubt and fear. The other side, the one we wish to cultivate and set free, leads us through a meadow of creativity, hopefulness and expansive possibilities. Meditation is a tool which can help us recognise when we are focusing on the negative aspects of imagination rather than the positive.

There are many different types of meditation, but at its most basic form meditation gives us the ability to decide whether or not we identify with our thoughts. It makes us able to see thoughts for what they really are: just thoughts. We are not our thoughts, our thoughts are just a part of our consciousness and lived experience. 

Meditation has many effects, but when it comes to developing the imagination there are few things more effective. Taking the time to meditate in whichever form you find works best for you can simply clear all the junk out of your head, and allow space for the imagination to roam freely, creatively and positively. 

If you’re not already meditating, I’d highly recommend investigating the practice. There are dozens of apps which can help you start this process. I’ve used Waking Up, Headspace and Insight Timer before, they are all fantastic and I would highly recommend any of them as a great starting place.

#5 Watching the World

I think there’s a theme emerging here: imaginative development is a process which requires us to both step away from the onslaught of stimulus coming our way and step towards a lived experience which is unlike our own. Taking the time to sit in the world and simply let our imaginations run free can be hugely beneficial. 

I think there’s a scary lack of boredom in the world at the moment. Yes, a lot of us have been locked down due to COVID-19, but we have access to so much stimulus, that I would argue few of us have allowed ourselves to get to a stage of positive boredom. The kind of boredom which gives rise to creativity, where the mind isn’t processing a huge amount of information and is instead given the time and space to think outside the box and be creative.

When was the last time you sat and watched the world go by? When was the last time you daydreamed and made up stories in your mind about why that stranger is running to catch the bus, or what made that person smile? In a world which is constantly telling us what we should be thinking about and concerned about, turn your attention instead to the world around you. See how inherently peaceful it is and see how your mind fills the space where digital input from your phone or device would have been. Engaging with this practise regularly can be essential in the rehearsal room or on set where you need to find freedom and the ability to function in high-pressure environments. you need to be able to engage with your imagination regardless of the situation, to be able to continually dig deeper into the character and make more and more interesting choices.

#6 Reducing Screen Time

This way to develop your imagination follows hard upon our last point. If you wish to develop your imagination, then as much as you can, reduce your non-essential screen time! It’s really important in this pursuit. Every moment on your phone scrolling aimlessly through social media is a moment where the mind and imagination is being directed and moulded. Conversely, each moment away from a screen and instead in the world is a moment for the mind to become curious and expansive.

Please don’t allow me to get high and mighty about this – I am as much a victim of social media scrolling as the next person. But it is an aim of mine to consistently reduce this time and instead put my attention into something which will allow me to develop or free my imagination. Any of the items on this list can do just that. 

Taking the reins back from your device is always going to be a worthwhile process. Anything which controls me or dictates my mindset and behaviour is something to be wary of. Start the process of regaining control of your willpower so you can place your attention where you feel it is best placed.

#7 Watching Other Actors

Sometimes, when I act, I feel like I need to reinvent the wheel. Like I need a new process every time or I need to solely draw on my own lived experience to generate the performance. That’s rubbish. Don’t do that. Don’t listen to me. Well, listen to me, just don’t do what I did. Engage with the work of performers who have come before you! You are standing on the shoulders of giants in this industry. Know what work has come before you and how it has shaped your perception of what makes ‘good acting’. Watching other people act should never limit your work, only expand its possibilities.

As well as this, engage with acting which is outside your normal range of exploration. Watch films made before you were born. Watch films which were made in a country which has a different language and culture to yours. Watch really early films. Watch black and white films, watch Chaplin, watch German Expressionism. All of these films and performances have informed where the industry is today, and it’s part of your responsibility as an actor in this industry to understand and appreciate that fact. 

Watching these films and performers will also broaden your horizons when it comes to your imagination. Actors you’ve never seen before may perform in ways which you didn’t think were possible or would work, and now suddenly it’s been proved to you that it is possible, it does work. 

This point is twofold: Watch a wide range of films, and watch a wide range of actors. These two actions will drastically improve your own imagination and abilities as an actor. And also, how great is it to be able to watch movies and genuinely say, “I’m working on my craft”!

#8 Pre-Input Time

I want to cap off this list with a final note about the importance of what’s been called “pre-input time”. Pre-input is the time following you waking up in the morning until you look at your phone and/ or check your emails. It is an incredibly precious space where your subconscious mind is still processing and considering the things it has dug up in your memory and imagination overnight, before turning its attention to the work of the day. This is a valuable time when it comes to the development of your imagination. 

To begin with, lengthening the time between waking and looking at a device is crucial. If the first thing we do when we open our eyes is shove a phone in front  of our face, we really reduce the potential for our imaginations to wander and be curious.

Overnight, our subconscious minds have pieced together a tonne of information from your past for your conscious mind to dissect and consider. It’s really valuable for us to take this time pre-input in the morning to do any one of the above actions for developing our imaginations. I, personally, love to write during this time. Whilst writing pre-input I am able to get some of these thoughts onto a page to consider in reality. I am unburdened by the ‘to do list’ of the day, so I am able to stay with my imagination and dreams from the night before.

Explore this time “pre-input” in your day, and see how you can best use it to mine it for the secrets and discoveries of your imagination and subconscious mind!

7 Day Challenge

We have a list with 7 items, so why don’t we turn this into a 7-day challenge? Here’s your recipe to kickstart the development of your imagination:

Day One: Take yourself on an ‘Artist Date’

Julia Cameron talks about this practise a LOT in her book, The Artist’s Way. It’s wonderful. Simply block out a few hours one day where you can take yourself (solo, preferably) without distractions to experience something which will cultivate your imagination. This could be a museum, gallery, performance, sporting event, you name it. Something which is going to allow you to consider the world in a different way. 

Day Two: Commit to a habit of reading for the rest of the week

Including today, there are six days left. Aim to read for at least 10-15 minutes each day, starting today. If you’re not already mid-way through a book, this is a great opportunity to start reading something out of your comfort zone.

Day Three: It’s time to get writing

Set a timer for 45 minutes, remove all distractions from your vicinity and write freely for that time. You might like to journal, you might like to write fiction. Whatever it is, see what happens when you focus on the single task of writing for 45 minutes. Notice whether this length of time is difficult for you to commit to a single task? Notice any yearning you have to look at your phone? All of these impulses are useful to take note of to see how reliant our minds and imaginations are on external stimulation.

Day Four: Complete a 10 minute meditation

This might not sound like a long time, but for the beginner meditator ten minutes can be a significant challenge. If you’re used to meditating, feel free to do more. But at the very least, set yourself aside 10 minutes free from distraction somewhere nice where you can sit quietly and experience consciousness. Observe the thoughts which arise, and watch them fade away. Everything you experience is simply an object of consciousness, nothing that you necessarily need to identify with. 

Day Five: Artist Date #2: ‘The Human Zoo’

It’s time to take yourself out on another artist date, this time to do some people-watching. Sit yourself down somewhere you’re able to non-invasively watch the world go by. Perhaps bring some headphones and music with you and/ or a notepad and pen for jotting down some thoughts. Sit for a while, aim for at least 45 minutes, and just let your imagination wander for a few moments to some of the people walking by you. Allow yourself to wonder about these people’s lives, what they’re worried about, what they’re excited about, where they’ve been, where they’re going. Be careful not to linger too long with a single person as you may make them feel uncomfortable. Just let your imagination be curious for a few moments then let it drift to the next person, then the next. This process is not about getting the answers ‘right’ about the lives of strangers, it’s about entertaining the possibility of what could be.

Day Six: Cut your screen time in half

This one might send some shockwaves through your system. If you’re a frequent device user (as most of us are) check and see how long your average screen time for your main device is. I’m an iPhone user, and Apple makes this process pretty simple. All I need to do is open Settings, then press ‘Screen Time’. Once you’ve identified your average screen time, now commit to spending the day with half that amount of time spent on a screen. If you’re not much of a screen time person, challenge yourself even more. Can you only check your phone between the hours of 4-5pm for today? In whatever way best suits your lifestyle, challenge yourself to experience a day of minimal screen time. Allow as much opportunity as possible for your imagination to be free to wander. 

Day Seven: Watch a non- algorithm movie

If you’re subscribed to a streaming platform, you’ll know that they have us pretty well figured out. They know what types of movies we like to watch, and usually we’re suggested all our favourite movies on the home page. Today, think outside the box. Break the algorithm. Watch a film that is outside your comfort zone. Watch a foreign language film, or a film made well before you were born. 

If you’re lost for what to watch, watch this film: La Jetee (1962)

La Jetée is a 1962 French science fiction featurette directed by Chris Marker and associated with the Left Bank artistic movement. Constructed almost entirely from still photos, it tells the story of a post-nuclear war experiment in time travel. It is 28 minutes long and shot in black and white. It won the Prix Jean Vigo for short film. The 1995 science fiction film 12 Monkeys was inspired by and borrows several concepts directly from La Jetée, as does the 2015 12 Monkeys television series developed from the film.

If you haven’t seen this film, it may be just the thing to challenge your perception of what is possible through storytelling on film and expand the horizons of your imagination. Enjoy, let us know in the comment section below which weird and wonderful films you discover!

Conclusion

Imaginative development begins with curiosity. The development of our imagination through curiosity lends us the ability to empathise, a crucial resource for the actor. Though it may be clearer and simpler to place all your focus whilst training acting into technique, it’s essential you remember the value of a sophisticated imagination, and develop it accordingly. 

Anyone can remember lines in a script. Anyone can ‘pretend’ to be another person to some degree of success. It’s this commodity: our imaginative quality, which sets us apart. It’s what makes us an individual, it’s what makes us interesting. Get out into the world and challenge the way you view it. Be curious about what you might find and then come back to your craft as an actor to see how it has changed and become more free! 

About the Author

Jack Crumlin

Jack Crumlin is an actor and educator based in Sydney, Australia. Jack trained at Actors Centre Australia, and has since worked primarily in Shakespeare- he loves a good sword fight on stage. In his spare time Jack geeks out over fantasy novels and Greek Mythology and loves to shoot photos on film.

About the Author

Jack Crumlin

Jack Crumlin is an actor and educator based in Sydney, Australia. Jack trained at Actors Centre Australia, and has since worked primarily in Shakespeare- he loves a good sword fight on stage. In his spare time Jack geeks out over fantasy novels and Greek Mythology and loves to shoot photos on film.

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