The Paradox of Being In the Moment.
“I don’t care about your impulses,” I said. “They’re worthless. Don’t listen to impulses.”
Later in that same class I watched another young man in another scene. He was standing by his seated partner, and I could tell that he wanted badly to sit next to her on the settee. Indeed, he almost did. But then he didn’t. During the critique I asked him about that moment and he said, “Well, I had an impulse to sit down, but I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do. So I didn’t.”
“You should always follow your impulses!” I exclaimed.
This was followed, and rightly so, by many moments of silence. I looked at the class. They looked at me. Finally . . .
“Okay. Clearly, I am entirely full of crap, and don’t know what I’m talking about, and you should all get your money back. Or perhaps there is something else going on that I have not yet articulated clearly, for myself and for you, and all of this makes sense. Somehow. I’ll think about it and get back to you next week.”
And I did. I pondered: Why, when we are digging for that cache of gold that is character, does the impulse sometimes lead us to the mother lode, and sometimes cause the mine to collapse on top us? Here is what came to me.
The “impulse” is rightly treasured and revered by actors and students of the craft. It’s not planned. It’s honest, spontaneous. It is actually happening. And isn’t that the aim of performance? To be alive and authentic, now? But in our daily lives, our own impulses become shaped, or worse, buried, by social conditioning. Family, religion, school, the workplace — all conspire against us, teach us which impulses are acceptable and which are not. Our range of emotional response becomes limited and stunted. To counter these effects theatrical training often begins with theater games and with improv.
In our early training as actors we play at exercises designed to bring us back to the childlike state where our impulses are free, where we can again access our spontaneity and authenticity. We begin to experience flashes of time where we are truly . . . oh, that state of being that is the Holy Grail of all performers . . . IN THE MOMENT! How great it feels after our emotions have been caged to find a safe space in the acting studio or on stage, to finally give ourselves free range. We shatter the carapace that has been imposed on us and begin to let our impulses reign. This is our first breakthrough. It is also a trap. It’s a trap because it feels so good.
Here’s the problem: The impulse is not an absolute, not a truth unto itself. In response to a stimulus, I might have one honest response, and you might have another. Likewise the characters that we portray. For most part, they are not actors. They don’t play theater games. They are not usually “in the moment,” other than perhaps at a true crisis point in the story. They are not “free.” They have their own conditioning forces and hard shells, their own families and histories that have told them how it is “okay” to behave, and these differ, sometimes a skosh, sometimes radically, from our own. We need to understand the history of the character, the relationships and events that shaped them, to know them from the inside out. Once we do that, we can arrive at an identification with that character, and that will influence and shape our impulses so that they are no longer ours, but theirs.
How do we go about this? Through homework and technique. By homework, I mean the kind you did in high school English class. Or should have done. A deep dive into the text, into the circumstances, the history, the culture in which your character lives. This will give you an understanding of the character and an intimate knowledge of his life that will be the tinder for your impulses. By technique I mean . . . but that’s another article, or book. There are plenty out there. Stanislavsky, Michael Chekhov, Sanford Meisner, to name a few. I lean towards Uta Hagen. Suffice it for now to say that the study of technique, whichever path we choose, teaches us how to spark the understanding we have gleaned from our homework into the flame of impulse. Technique allows us to take the freedom of expression we have learned in the early stages of our training, add to it our own self-awareness and knowledge of human nature, and channel all of that into the behaviors, habits, and foibles of another unique character, a creation entirely new, and entirely our own.