Don’t ask me how I feel: how ambiguous language is a learning barrier in actor training.

By Klara Hricik (She/they)

Klara is pursuing an MFA in Actor Training and Coaching at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

How do you feel right now?

What does that question elicit for you? Do you want to answer? If so, what might your response be? Would you consider physical sensations, your emotional state, or any present thoughts? Would you give a genuine, insightful response or a casual polite non-answer as a means to move on with the conversation?

Throughout my theatrical training, I have heard acting instructors use the word feel when leading exercises. I have heard it utilised as a check-in: “How did that make you feel?” and “Did that feel okay to you?”, and as a direction: “Connect to the feeling”, “You just have to feel it”, and “You’ll know it when you feel it”.

I have never been able to figure out what is meant by feel. The word has always been very overwhelming for me, which makes sense as there are almost twenty definitions across different parts of speech (Merriam Webster, 2023). I’m sure I’ve heard just about every application of feel throughout my acting training across various practices; however, it was rarely specified which one my instructor intended. I believe that I may have struggled more than some of my peers due to being a neurodivergent learner. Many people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Dyslexia struggle with interpreting indirect language (Chahubon et al., 2021). As someone with ADHD, I have found the ambiguous language used in actor training to be a barrier not only to my understanding of various acting practices, but also to my success as a student. In my insecurity, I could not navigate how I was being assessed, whether I was ‘succeeding,’ and if I would be marked well by my instructor.

As I reflect on my experiences, I aim to answer the following questions:

  • “How has ambiguous language impacted my acting training?”
  • “What are the different definitions of feel?”
  • “How is feel used in different actor training methodologies?”
  • “How can I sharpen my pedagogical vocabulary to promote clarity in my approach to actor training?”

How has ambiguous language impacted my acting training?

Throughout my acting training, I was often chastised for being too logical, asking too many questions, and being too ‘in my head’. The reality was that I had no clue what I was supposed to be doing or why. I didn’t get why I couldn’t ask why. Why were we moving through the space without speaking for hours? Why did it matter what water feature I saw myself as that day? Why was my homework to study a tortoise’s movements? Why were we throwing a ball in the air repeatedly for twenty minutes? Why was I doing this at 9 am and paying obscene amounts of money to do so? Why was this crucial to me becoming a better actor?

My requests for clarity and structure were often perceived as combative, uncooperative, and unprofessional, despite my genuine desire to do the work and learn from it. In acting and movement classes from secondary school to professional workshops, I would often hear comments such as “No questions”, “There is no right or wrong”, or “Don’t think about it or judge it, just feel it. We will discuss later”. I will highlight for you my thought process in moments like these:

Feel what? What is ‘it’? How can I not judge ‘it’ if I don’t know what ‘it’ is? How do I find ‘it’ without thinking about ‘it’? How am I supposed to notice my feelings without thinking about my feelings? Obviously, I am doing this exercise wrong, I don’t feel ‘it’. Well, I don’t think I feel it, but I’m not supposed to think! Okay, what am I going to say when we discuss? This exercise made me feel…. confused. Can I say that? I feel like… my head kind of hurts and I’m hungry. That’s an honest answer. No, I’m sure that’s not what they want to hear.

Okay, let’s take a look around the room… Everyone else looks so focused. I better put on an intense face, too, so they think I’ve got ‘it’. Everyone else seems to feel ‘it’ and know what ‘it’ is. How do they know? How do they get ‘it’ and I don’t? Was ‘it’ obvious and I’m just dumb? Am I a terrible actor?

As I was often unable to make sense of what I had experienced in my acting training, I had no way of gaining the intended knowledge. I was, instead, forced to resort to pretending to understand what occurred, for fear of embarrassment in discussions and, ultimately, being marked poorly by my tutor.

I now know that my inability to succeed in this setting was not due to my inability as an actor or lack of effort as a student. Philosopher and researcher Alva Noë says that learners must ‘… experience sensations sufficiently that [they] make a certain sort of sense to [them], i.e., [they] understand that the sensations [they] experience are constitutive in some way’ (Noë, 2004, p.3 in Zarrilli, 2012, p. 47). As the purpose of the work was unclear and my requests to make sense of it were often denied, I was not able to fully learn or experience these activities in a way that encouraged my growth as an actor.

This also had consequences for my experience as a student, as I didn’t know how I was being marked. In an educational setting, giving students open-ended guidance when they are being assessed can not only result in insecurity and stress for the student, but a lack of trust in the educator and effort towards the work. In Aligning Teaching for Constructive Learning, JohnBiggs, referring to the broader field of higher education, explains ‘The assessment is the curriculum, as far as the students are concerned. They will learn what they think they will be assessed on, not what is in the curriculum’ (2003, p2). While actor training is largely experiential in nature, the confines of educational settings require measurable marking criteria. Though ambiguous language may aid the creative freedom of an exercise for some students, that does not negate the fact that in an institutional setting, actors are being evaluated. It is important for actor trainers to be clear about what the intended learning outcomes are and create specific, measurable criteria that students can work towards for assessments (Biggs, 2003). Whilst there are evident barriers for neurodivergent students that have legal ramifications under the Equality Act (, 2010), ambiguous language and grading guidelines can negatively impact the education of all students, as we will explore through various definitions of feel and the ways they are often conflated.

What are the different definitions of feel?

When looking at the word itself, feel has many meanings across different parts of speech as a transitive verb, intransitive verb, and noun (Merriam Webster, 2023, n.p.). Here are all of Merriam Webster’s definitions of feel, which we will explore more deeply in the next section (2023, n.p.).

Feel – Transitive verb

  1. a: to handle or touch in order to examine, test, or explore some quality
    b: to perceive by a physical sensation coming from discrete end organs (as of the skin or muscles)
  2. a: to undergo passive experience
    b: to have one’s sensibilities markedly affected by
  3. to ascertain by cautious trial (usually used with out)
  4. a: to be aware of by instinct or interference
    b: believe, think
  5. (US slang): to understand (someone): to know how (someone) feels

Feel – Intransitive verb

  1. a: to receive or be able to receive a tactile sensation
    b: to search for something by using the sense of touch
  2. a: to be conscious of an inward impression, state of mind, or physical condition
    b: to have a marked sentiment or opinion
  3. seem
  4. to have sympathy or pity

Feel – Noun

  1. sensation, feeling
  2. the sense of touch
  3. a: the quality of a thing as imparted through or as if through touch
    b: typical or peculiar quality or atmosphere, an awareness of such a quality or atmosphere
  4. intuitive knowledge or ability.

Across these definitions, we see references to the physical, cognitive, and experiential applications of feel. Let’s explore these different definitions and moments when they may be applied in the context of actor training.

How is feel used in different actor training methodologies?”

I want to begin by isolating the definitions of feel that reference physical sensations (Merriam Webster, 2023, n.p.).

Transitive verb

  • to handle or touch in order to examine, test, or explore some quality
  • to perceive by a physical sensation coming from discrete end organs (as of the skin or muscles)

Intransitive verb

  • to receive or be able to receive a tactile sensation
  • to search for something by using the sense of touch


  • sensation, feeling
  • the sense of touch
  • a quality of a thing as imparted through or as if through touch

When asked how I feel, the first thing I do is consider physical sensations, which may be the intended application in various acting methods focused on actors’ physicality. Artaud believed that theatre is primarily physical(Hodge, 2010, p. 285) and many acting methodologies agree with this notion. Practices, such as Meyerhold, Suzuki, and Grotowski, do not focus on the cognitive processes of other acting techniques, but on the ‘materiality of the actor’s body and what can be done with it as a medium’ (Allain, n.d., n.p.). Beyond physical theatre, we see the prioritisation’ of the actor’s body in many popular acting practices. Physical experiences may be encouraged practically, with practitioners using objects, such as sticks in Meyerhold’s biomechanics (Hodge, 2010, p.33) or in Stanislavsky’s exercises in concentration, which rely on the senses to explore an object (Hodge, 2010, p. 9). Many practices also rely on the physical bodies in the space, such as in Stanislavsky’s interest in Yoga (Carnickie, 2008), and Grotowski’s corporal exercises and focus on ‘extreme physicality’ (Wolford in Hodge, 2021, p. 208).

Methodologies such as Chekhov and Linklater encourage students to imagine physical experiences rather than engage with real physical items, often relying on imagery. Affective memory, as created by Stanislavsky and further developed by Lee Strasberg, promotes that ‘the ability to recall senses stimulates the body rather than the mind, giving the actor greater visceral awareness and experience’ (Krasner in Hodge, p. 148). In every facet of my training thus far, I have encountered some form of physical work, often engaging with the five senses.

Most actor training methodologies also value some sort of awareness, which we also see exemplified through the word feel (Merriam Webster, 2023, n.p.).

Transitive verb

  • to be aware of by instinct or interference
  • believe, think
  • (US slang): to understand (someone): to know how (someone) feel

Intransitive verb

  • to be conscious of an inward impression, state of mind, or physical condition
  • to have a marked sentiment or opinion
  • seem
  • to have sympathy or pity


  • typical or peculiar quality of atmosphere, an awareness of such a quality or atmosphere
  • intuitive knowledge or ability 

In these definitions, I see the words ‘aware’, ‘awareness’, ‘conscious’ and ‘intuitive’ come up across various meanings. This directly relates to actor training as awareness is largely encouraged across acting practices, including Chekov’s ‘body-awareness into and through psychophysical composition’ (Zarilli, 2012, p.20), Suzuki training, which David Climenhaga says ‘is as much about awareness and placement as it is about exertion’ (in Hodge, 2021, p. 294) (which, if you’ve done any Suzuki, you will know that that is a very high bar to set), and in Meyerhold’s Biomechanics, where ‘… the actor needs to be extremely sensitive to what his body, his gestures his movements are connoting. He needs a kind of built in mirror’ (Leach in Hodge, 2021, p. 32).

Often, actor training is concerned with going beyond the physical and connecting different aspects of awareness, such as emotional or mental. Stanislavsky scholar Sharon Marie Carnicke says that ‘In the realm of “feelings” the System’s actor works on all levels- physical, emotional, and intellectual – at once’ (2008, p. 218). Kristen Linklater’s work explores the connection of the mental and physical as ‘whole-body-mind awareness’ (Linklater, 2006, n.p.). Clearly, awareness is a key component of many prominent actor training methodologies, which may pose a barrier for some actors.

There are many people that struggle with physical and/or emotional awareness, with a significant prevalence in neurodivergent individuals. It has been found that people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder may have ‘difficulty with sensing internal states,’ including body awareness, in comparison to those without a diagnosis (Fiene and Brownlow, 2015, n.p.). Alexithymia is ‘characterised by difficulties in recognizing emotions from internal body sensations’ (Shah et al., 2016, n.p.). Although separate diagnoses, alexithymia is ‘highly prevalent’ in autistic individuals (Poquérusse et al, 2018). In their research drawing on their experience as an autistic actor and actor trainer, Zoë Glen claims that ‘the autistic actor’s own emotion memory may not be available to draw on. Asking us to remember a time we felt sad, excited or angry, […] is not an effective route to emotional activation for many of us’ (2023, n.p.). I would like to invite actor trainers to be awareof any barriers that may exist in their practices and consider what they will do when they have individuals who find this awareness inaccessible.

With all of these, often conflicting, definitions of feel across acting practices, how is an actor supposed to know what is being asked of them? Why, in a field that is so focused on specificity in acting choices, are we using such general vocabulary?

Well, for Stanislavsky, the ambiguity was somewhat intentional.

In his original Russian texts, Stanislavsky often uses the word ‘chuvstva, which refers simultaneously to  ‘feelings’ and the five ‘senses’’ (Carnicike, 2008, p. 157). He wanted to evoke that well-rounded psycho-physical actor we talked about previously. When Stanislavsky’s texts were translated by Elizabeth Hapgood, she translated the Russian words for feelings, experiences and sensations interchangeably (Carnicke, 2008, p. 132). We can see this multiplicity in the English definitions of feel as well. The utilisation of the different meanings and connections of feel that is prioritised in many acting practices may improve some acting performances; however, I believe that, especially early in training, it is crucial to use specific language clarifying what elements are being focused on in the work, be it physical sensations, different aspects of awareness, or an intended experience. And I do believe Stanislavsky would agree with this notion. In his later work, Stanislavsky added this specificity into his own practice, limiting the word ‘sensations’ to refer only to physical feelings (Carnicke, 2008, p. 218). I would encourage this clarity from actor trainers and suggest using an alternative to feel when referring to what they want actors to experience.

Aside from the definitions we have already categorised, feel can also be used to describe the way in which one engages with an experience. Feel in reference to experiences can be classified into two applications, being either active or passive (Merriam Webster, 2023, n.p.).

Feel as active experience:

Transitive verb

  • to ascertain by cautious trial (usually used with out)

Feel as passive experience:

Transitive verb           

  • to undergo passive experience

Intransitive verb

  • to receive or be able to receive a tactile sensation

I was confused both by the inherent opposition in these applications and by the notion that one could “passively” experience something. Upon reflection, I recalled how often I was asked to ‘receive’ or ‘undergo’ experiences without any sort of critical engagement or personal autonomy of the work. I believe that this request has caused the most contention throughout my acting training journey. I was resistant to experiences where I was expected to be impacted without any information on what we were doing and why. I was often encouraged to ‘let it happen’, ‘trust the process’ and ‘jump in’ rather than to proceed cautiously, to ask questions, or to seek clarity in moments when I would have benefited from further guidance. I would advocate for a shift away from this passivity in actor training in favour of a more engaging pedagogical framework.

In his later work, Stanislavsky began advancing Active Analysis as a means to give actors more autonomy over their work and perhaps to challenge directors who ‘threatened to treat actors like pawns’ (Carnicke, 2008, p. 202). This began to shift away from the passivity required in Stanislavsky’s earlier hierarchical pedagogy to more of a dialogic style (Alexander, 2019). I believe that this shift should be noted and embraced when considering the application of the earlier definitions of feel. I would like to suggest using what Alva Noë refers to as ‘perceptual experience’ (Noë, 2006) in place of the passivity and level of obedience that was often asked of me in my training. Perceptual experience encourages learners to be ‘intrinsically thoughtful’ and notes that it is through their ‘skillful activity’ that they will understand the material (Noë, 2006, p.2). Rather than passively watching or replicating the practitioner, actors are encouraged to actively engage in their learning experience, asking questions, forming opinions, and working to develop their skills rather than letting someone tell them what to do and how it should impact them. I propose that we use this mindset when considering all facets of feeling in order to remove any ambiguity from the work and support actors to make sense of the work and have the best opportunity to grow as artists.

How can I sharpen my pedagogical vocabulary to promote clarity in my approach to actor training?

So, what do we do?

Elaborate and get specific.

My freshman year of Acting during my undergraduate degree, we were encouraged to purchase Marina Caldarone and Maggie Lloyd-Williams’ Actions: An Actor’s Thesaurus (2004). When analysing a script, we were to refer to this text to differentiate and specify the intentions of our acting choices. 

Actor trainers: I invite you to do the same. If you are inclined to use the word feel, notice that. Consider the nuances behind what you are actually asking of your students. Assess what may be the most effective way to communicate the intended outcome. Maybe you could elaborate on your use of the word or find a new word altogether. Below is a table I created that proposes some alternatives to feel in different actor training scenarios.

Alternative vocabulary to feel
Feel pertaining to the physical

Isolate the use of the word ‘sensations’ exclusively for this application (a la Stanislavsky)
Notice any sensations occurring in your body. Explore the physical experience of doing this activity. Consider what temperatures, textures, muscular tension, etc. you or your character may be physically sensing.
Feel pertaining to mental thoughtsNotice any thoughts that arise from doing this exercise. What does this make you think of? Engage the character’s mentality as you respond to this moment.
Feel pertaining to emotionsNotice any emotional reactions that may come up for you or your character.What emotions might your character be experiencing? Consider the different emotional reactions your character might have in response to this moment.
Feel pertaining to ‘perceptual experience’ (Noë, 2006)Explore any impulses that arise from this activity. Receive these instructions and see what sensations, thoughts, or emotions you experience. If nothing arises, engage with the material in whatever way you are able to.
Feel pertaining to analysisConsider what is effective in this practice and what might be a barrier for you.Explore the limitations of this activity.Engage with this exercise through a critical lens.Notice any reservations you might have. Feel free to address them in whatever way you deem fit before engaging with the activity.

These are some examples that could potentially specify intention, but the possibilities are by no means limited to this table. It is also possible practitioners will have to communicate in different ways for different students. By using specific language and being flexible in their methods, actor trainers can enhance clarity and inclusion in their teaching. In my practices, I hope to deepen students’ understanding of acting by continuing to clarify ambiguous language and, in doing so, prevent alienation and insecurity amongst my actor-students.

Klara Hricik,
Septmeber 2023.


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