Acting Impulses: What Are They and Why Are They Important

What is an impulse and why is it important

We all know things like impulse buys or impulsive behavior, but what about an impulse in acting terms? It is hard to explain to be honest, but here it goes.

An impulse is an instantaneous, conscious or unconscious, idea to do or say something. There are big impulses, like slapping someone, to micro impulses like scratching your nose or adjusting your glasses or your idiosyncratic movements. These can be based off of exterior factors, or it can be from internal factors.

Physical impulses are the easiest to spot, because they manifests so boldly.

In real life people react with words or movement because of impulses.  Impulses are on the inside – take the focus inside. Most people don’t think they have time to feel in today’s society, but if you are an actor that is the exact thing you must do.

Impulses as Described by Nikolai Demidov

These are a few key points from Demidov’s book, Becoming an Actor-Creator.

  • The ability to follow the first impulse without delay is so important for actors that every one of them – regardless of their persuasion – consciously or subconsciously prizes this particular gift.
  • Let us take a closer look at it. Any impression we receive evokes in us a certain response – a reaction. In a spontaneous person, this reaction is immediately visible – it meets no obstacles on its way. If someone unpleasant walks into a room, at that very moment his face would pout – without even noticing it, he would turn away. That would be his first reaction.
  • The next moment would bring a delay of this first reaction – its inhibition. With it would come the orientation in the surroundings: the person understands that such a direct expression of his attitude is awkward and indecent – finally, it is insulting for the newcomer.
  • This brings about the third moment: a reaction in view of the surrounding – this reaction can be called secondary. Now the person may, on the contrary, make a friendly face and even offer his hand to the newcomer.
  • The actor’s creative reaction cannot be like either of those. It is much more complicated.
  • The actors must transform into a character with his or her nature, beliefs, feelings and tastes. In addition to that, actors have to live with all the circumstances of the play.
  • In the meantime, the natural orientation cannot disappear: actors cannot forget that they are actors, performing onstage.

Nikolai Demidov, Becoming an Actor-Creator, trans Andrei Malaev-Babel and Margarita Laskina (New York, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016), 290.

What do you mean “Judge your impulses?”

If you let impulses flow without judgement your behavior is real. But, if you judge them (stopping to think about them) then rather than impulses they become thoughts, and thought out actions. If we move or talk based on thoughts then we are aware of what we’re doing, and it becomes just an imitation of what we think we would naturally do. But it’s not what we would actually do, it is stifled and lacks life.

Another problem to this is when you judge an impulse halfway through. This happened a lot to me when I first started out; I would let the impulse go and begin to act on it, but then halfway through I would start to think about it, and the immediate thought in my head was “This is stupid, why are you doing this?” and then I would immediately shut down that impulse and almost every subsequent impulse for that scene.

Go with the impulse, we can argue about how it landed later.

A recent example of me judging my impulses

Here is an example I noticed in myself the other week. I walk home in the dark, and when I see groups of three or more men, especially loud or clearly drunk ones, my body begins to shift toward fight or flight. I become aware of my own behavior and I change it so as not to attract any attention. (I know I’m never in any sort of danger consciously, but our mind and body still react, seriously it’s super interesting to realize you and your thoughts are actually two different things)

Rather than do what I normally do while I’m walking home, looking around for foxes, squirrels, and dogs, I now have tension in my instrument and judge those impulses. I keep looking forward until I pass that group, making sure to avoid eye contact. While I was walking I realised that from the outside looking in, because I was not letting my micro impulses go through there I guarantee you could tell I wasn’t executing my real behaviour, and that something about me was off. I bet I really just had my head down and lengthened my stride, I didn’t look real.

Real vs Fake impulses

This is hard to figure out, but it is something you need to really think about. When I first started my acting classes I thought that I was freeing myself up and letting impulses flow. This was not the case though, I was acting off of fake impulses.

I was uncomfortable with the long pauses between lines. Rather than sit still and wait I pushed and changed that nervous energy into physical movement. The want to move was not an actual “want” based on what was really happening in front of me, but was an escape button to let myself out. By forcing these actions I was no longer truthful.

Saying or doing nothing when you’re performing is hard. It takes a lot more courage to do nothing.

Dealing with an impulse that the script doesn’t call for

How can you deal with an impulse to talk when the script doesn’t allow it?

In this case, you need to transfer the verbal impulse to a physical impulse. Do something, maybe it is not what you want to say, but you want to do something.

Being watched changes you

People change their behaviour when they’re watched, sometimes consciously or sometimes  subconsciously. In fact there is a study that showed even just a picture of a person’s eyes can alter the behaviour of people (link in further reading at bottom of page). And there is further study that if you are watched while you’re working out you will increase your efforts

This is a massive problem for an actor as what we do is inherently done in front of an audience or a crew. I remember when I first started acting I made a comment to the extent that if someone was paying to watch me act, I’d better be trying hard to do something.  This is the completely wrong attitude. Trying harder and pushing for a result in acting leads to an imitation, something people also can subconsciously detect instantly. And audiences feel insulted if they sense this from an actor.

So why does being watched matter to our impulses?

When we are watched we judge ourselves, and every impulse we have. This is why some people who may be very lively when you’re talking to them one on one can become stiff and stifled when onstage.

When we judge our impulses we don’t let them occur naturally and in their own time. And when we think about or analyse our impulses they become conscious thoughts.

In judging what we are doing we are creating tension in our instrument. This tension can stop the fluidity of our movements and can move the voice from the diaphragm to the throat. When the voice no longer sits on the diaphragm the actor loses authority and people will begin to think he doesn’t know what he is doing.

Final Thoughts

This has been just a very brief introduction to the idea of acting impulses, but I wanted to leave you with as clear of an example as I could of what our true aim as actors should be. Think about watching children at play. They follow every single impulse that comes to mind, they don’t worry about what it will look like, or what people will think. They feel it, they act on it. Our goal as actors is to get back to this mindset of really just allowing ourselves to be free to feel and to act on those feelings.

Links to topics mentioned in this blog

How being watched changed you – without you knowing. By Jason G Goldman

Nikolai Demidov: Becoming an Actor-Creator

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