The genesis of all creativity is the impulse. This is a bold statement and one that I suspect may even be challenged by cynics. What I hope to accomplish in this blog is to offer an explanation beginning with a “bread and butter” definition of an impulse.
An impulse is an urge to do something. We’ve been experiencing impulses our entire lives. For example, when you reach into the microwave with your bare hands to remove a hot plate what happens? You yell, “Ouch!” Or, when you feel an itch on your upper lip, what do you have an urge to do? Scratch it!
What do these two examples have in common? You don’t have to stop and think about it. It’s an instinctive reaction. In other words, you can’t think an impulse. It’s natural and organic.
Developing a connection to your impulses is one of life’s greatest treasures. Very simply, impulses are more honest than thoughts. Thoughts are filtered through the brain where they are edited and censored until the true meaning is wrung out of them. As Alan Watts said, “A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thoughts, so he loses touch with reality and lives in a world of illusions.”
Because thinking blocks the instinctive response, actors are taught to replace thinking with doing. Acting instructors have long recognized the power of the impulse. Actors are taught to follow their impulses and allow them to dictate the changes in their behavior. In “The Actor’s Art And Craft,” the great acting instructor William Esper explains why:
“A connection with his impulses is one of the most important things an actor can develop, because who you really are is revealed by your spontaneous impulses. Not the ‘you’ that you’d like to be or the ‘you’ you think another person wants you to be. I’m talking about your true self. To be your true self, you have to act before you think.”
This sounds counter-intuitive because it goes against everything we’ve been taught in life. From the time we were tots, we were taught, “Look before you leap.” “Think before you speak.” “Look both ways before crossing.” But Mr. Esper teaches his students to do the exact opposite and there is a method behind his madness: “But I say: Speak before you think! Leap before you look! This is the only way you’ll ever come to life as a human being.”
A good play is like a pingpong match of impulses with the ball always swooshing through the air. As Mr. Esper explains:
“… [T]he ball moves fast and never stops. It bounces to me and I don’t wait – I hit it back to you. Then you hit it back and here it is with me again. From me to you, from you to me. If you pause to think, you’re done for.”
When in a play, good actors don’t wait for a “cue” before responding. The impulse to do what they’re doing comes before their scene partner finishes their line. Of course, the actor must wait for his cue, but the impulse – the emotion – comes whenever it’s felt.
Here is an example of what Sanford Meisner mean by the instinctive/impulsive response.
Suppose you ask me, “Mike, who is your favorite Beatle: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, or Ringo Starr?” If my eyes light up immediately and I start nodding my head up and down upon hearing the name, “Paul McCartney,” you’ll immediately know who my favorite Beatle is without having to wait for my verbal response. This illustrates that impulses happen all over the place, not just at the end of a line.
As an actor, I’m always struck by how easy it is to stray from my own rawness; to deny a true impulse even though it frees me to get out of my head and into my heart. For me, this inhibition comes down to one simple statement: the lubricant of life is manners. As a result, we curb our impulses. The tendency nowadays is to follow your instincts only when they are socially acceptable. We fear being branded as uncivilized.
To honor an impulse is to take the “polite routine” out of your work. Polite is a way of protecting yourself and winning the approval of others. But there are no casual moments in drama. Writers don’t write polite. They write about the human condition – the struggle. This does not mean that actors go out of their way to be rude or disrespectful. At the same time, we’re all primal. We can’t deny it. When you walk outside and see someone keying your car, nothing is intellectual about your reaction.
Just as important it is to know what it means to honor a true impulse, we should know what it means to suppress one. Suppose your colleague gives a presentation that you attend. Your real reaction is that it was terrible. Yet, afterwards you go up to him with a smile on your face and through gritted teeth say, “That was great!” Your jaw tenses to keep the real, instinctive remark from coming out.
This type of control is diametrically opposite to the spontaneous, deeply instinctive behavior that Meisner’s technique is meant to stimulate. After all, the purpose of the Meisner technique is to rid actors of the baggage that weighs them down and blocks their instincts.
The value of unexpected and unplanned behavior cannot be overstated. In a fascinating interview with Marc Maron, Jerry Lewis talks about the many things that happened “spontaneously” when he was working with Dean Martin. “Most of the great stuff was unprepared and we had so much fun getting it to work.”
Think that removing thought from the equation is too radical an idea when it comes to the courtroom? It is more native than you think. Consider this. Professional speakers make a point of memorizing the first three to five minutes of their speech cold. The speaker then pivots out of that moment into the body and/or content of the speech. There are two reasons. First, if the speaker can get through the first three minutes with positive feedback and feeling like he has done a good job, he has “broken the ice” so to speak. It’s like the first time you tell a joke and people laugh. The temperature seems to change in the room slightly. Everybody relaxes. You feel like they are on your side.
Second, “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” In the public speaking domain, awry is synonymous with backstage jitters, obnoxious members of the audiences that heckle the speaker by erupting into a chorus of “boos,” powerpoint slides that freeze, and microphones that mysteriously go dead.
When something goes wrong, it usually happens during the first five minutes of the speech not unlike the vast majority of plane crashes attributable to mechanical failure that happen during takeoff. The psychology behind this is that by memorizing the first three minutes, the speaker does not have to use his brain and can stay on autopilot.
Transitioning from the stage to the courtroom is a real life example of how an unexpected reaction that I had to a witness’s response had the truth written all over it.
While cross-examining an expert witness, the expert said, “I offer my opinion – within a reasonable degree of medical certainty – that the patient’s subcutaneous emphysema resulted from and had progressively worsened as a result of endotracheal intubation and bronchoscopy.”
The words were so foreign and came off the witness’s tongue with such ease that it stunned me. In that moment, I must have looked as lost as the fictional character, Kramer from “Seinfeld” as the jury erupted in laughter. But they weren’t laughing at me – they were laughing with me. They were just as confused as I was and were able to sympathize with me because I was expressing spontaneously what was truthful and honest to me in the moment: the frustration of being utterly lost.
This experience has taught me what it means to trust my impulses and to accept myself for who I am in the moment. It’s easier said than done. Trusting your instincts takes time, patience, and experience. A practical tip is that the better you get at eliminating thought from your work, the more instinctive you become.
It also taught me not to be afraid of “accidents.” There are many times when they are the best things that can happen. The ability to leave yourself alone and not anticipate what’s going to happen next is the stuff that dreams are made of.
As my acting instructor once said, “Spontaneity is to acting what salt is to soup. Without it, it’s bland.” Truer words have never been spoken.