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The Well-Trained Instinct

Thomas Constantine Moore discusses ways to develop actor instincts. logo

Animals are incredibly useful references for personality-specific behavior (© Thomas Constantine Moore)

I was talking to my friend about writing this column today - I knew I was going to be writing about actor instincts, but I wasn't exactly sure how to launch into it. "I don't want to be like, 'an actor must use both technique and instinct!' Duh." My friend laughed, as if to say, "Yeah, don't do that. That would be terrible."

Well, here's the thing: It's easy to identify what technique is. Technique is often tangible. It involves research or text-work, vocal and physical training, and specific theories or approaches that we can study and practice. But it's much harder to identify the actor's instinct. It's not just the actor's ability to improvise; it's a whole set of non-academic faculties that everyone clearly possesses - it's just not clear what they do.

If we designate technique as any sort of prepared work, whether it's a method, a vocal choice, or text analysis, then we can define instinct as the actor's spontaneous choices in the moment of acting. That suggests a list of inherent attributes that performers rely on, which can express themselves as vocal pattern, inflection, comedic timing, dramatic timing, reactions, etc. To some extent you can attach technique to these. As a director, I can say "take a longer pause before you say that line. It will be funnier if you take a longer pause," but the actor's instinctive sense of timing has not changed. In fact, I've often heard it said that you can't teach people to be funny. That makes it an excellent example of instinct separate from technique, so let's assume it's true: that it's impossible to teach timing. But can you learn it?

Well, I sure hope so.

Because as much as instincts are helpful, they're often more noticeable when they're holding us back. A lot of "bad acting" can be attributed to poor instincts that haven't been compensated for with good technique. There's a very blurry line between nervous habit and poor instinct, or even an absence of instinct. A lot of actor traps are just instinctual traits we've developed over the years which do not serve us as well as we think they do. Directors get tired of issuing the same basic behavioral notes over and over again, and they'll really enjoy working with actors who just instinctively get it. So it's definitely something we want to cultivate. But how? Here are some approaches I've tried:

1. Awareness: Though it's difficult to force consciousness of subconscious behavior, it's been my experience that endeavoring to understand what we normally do without thinking is enormously beneficial. 2. Observation: Watching people tell jokes or stories and just kind of praying that you pick it up by osmosis. That's probably how we learned as children, so there's no reason to think it won't continue to work now. 3. Practice: Trying to be funny, even if you fail, might just be the best way to learn to be funny. And the same goes for any other instinctual action. In life, if we attempt to implement new behavioral strategies they gradually take root and become part of our natural manner.

"Trust your instincts," is a phrase that gets bandied about a lot in theater schools, and it's important to distinguish between that and, "Trust your work." I myself have struggled recently with letting go of some of my technique in the moment of performance and living fully in the scene. In the process of achieving a greater level of specificity, I've lost a little natural ease. Trusting my work is something I definitely need to do, but I can only do that if the work is there. The same goes for instincts, but instincts carry with us from job to job, whereas 'work' must be redone for every role. If I'm going to trust my instincts, I'd better hope my instincts are good, so it may be wise to devote at least some level of attention to examining and improving what is often thought to be innate.

I think I like this question of the week thing, so here's another: Whether personal or professional, purposeful or incidental, what's an instinctual behavior of yours that's changed over time? Respond in the comments section! Thanks for reading! Tell your friends, and check back next week.


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