Picture Exercises…

From time to time, I have taken acting classes. While studying at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, I learned a technique called the “Picture Exercise” where the actor finds a picture of a person/character and recreates the picture by recreating the exact pose and costume.  This exercise helps the actor find specific character traits to incorporate into life-like behavior for the character.  Once the actor is dressed and posed like the picture, the actor must answer one question, “What does the person in the picture say at that moment in time?”  In order to answer that question, the actor must get a sense of the inner and outer voice of the character/person in the picture.  The actor has to create backstory and has to create the moment before.  The actor has to know what frame of mind the person in the picture is in, where they are physically, how they move, if they move, and why they move.  Then what do they sound like when they talk, do they have an accent, a lisp, are they loud or quiet…

I did my exercise from a picture of Sethe from Toni Morrison’s Beloved who is patterned after Margaret Garner, the slave who killed her young daughter rather than let her return to slavery. I used a photograph by Ken Regan (found in the book Journey to Beloved by Oprah Winfrey) on page 48.  The actress who played young Sethe, Lisa Gay Hamilton has a video of that scene “get in the shed”  and while I did not recreate her scene, I did recreate her look and the look of the babies for my exercise.  The picture I used was of Sethe holding her two infant daughters in her arms – in complete controlled hysterics.  I made my costume, bought two dolls – a small brown one and a larger white one, as there are seldom brown dolls to be found in stores.  I bought paint and mixed it to get the perfect hue and painted the white one brown, after the paint dried, I glued hair onto the head in little braids all over. I made dresses for the babies.  Grabbed a knife – one that could slice skin and created and reenacted what I considered fitting backstory that would make a mother slit her baby’s throat.

What did she say?  “Dey be dead or dey be free.”

I always liked the picture exercise but hadn’t thought of using it for a writing exercise until I participated in a playwright’s workshop at Native Voices the Autry with Bernardo Solano.  The seminar was right around the time that I lost my niece and I needed to do something to get my mind off my grief.  I needed to write and I was craving the company of other writers…  It was hard to focus; however, when we were asked to select a picture and write whatever it inspired us to write, I found the selection process somewhat soothing.  I selected a picture of a man and an infant lying dead on stone steps.  The picture began to speak almost immediately – “the bombs came in the night…”  The resulting piece is a 10-minute play titled MILK DUST.

I don’t usually do writing exercises because I believe to get better at writing, you have to write…  Writing is like doing pushups, the only way to get better at pushups is to do more pushups.  I do like this exercise though; I like the way it can be used from the acting and the writing perspective. It’s close to what I do in my head when I visualize the characters that I am writing about, when I am listening to what they say.  This exercise is a perfect way to find an unexpected way into an unexpected play…


  • By Diane Grant, April 25, 2012 @ 9:09 am

    Hi, Robin,

    I’m going to try this. Thanks.


  • By Robin Byrd, April 26, 2012 @ 11:05 am

    Great, Diane. Let me know how it goes.

  • By Nancy Beverly, April 26, 2012 @ 7:49 am

    Love, love, love this post. I could see everything you were describing!!

  • By Robin Byrd, April 26, 2012 @ 11:08 am

    Thanks, Nancy, that is the best compliment to know your words can have the visual effect you are striving for.

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