Basic Instincts

Use Your Instincts!

How many times have you heard that from an acting teacher or a director or another actor giving you advice? A ton, right? Sage words—unless you have no clue what they are talking about. That’s how I was when I was starting out. I didn’t know what they meant by “instincts” or more frighteningly if I even HAD any.

A lot of actors work from their heads. They think things through, they plan out how they are going to say their words, which lines they are going to raise their eyebrows on, how they are going to inflect their voices, in hopes that their performance will be brilliant. But it doesn’t work that way. All that does is gives a canned performance, light years away from any resemblance of humanity. And it might get them booked every once in a while, but it ain’t gonna win them an Oscar.

Not that our main goal as actors is to become Academy Award Winners. Isn’t our main goal to be the best actor we possibly can? Well I’ve got GREAT news for you, if you use your instincts when you act you will be.

Got Humanity?

But what if I don’t have any instincts, you say? Don’t worry, you do, TONS of them. And why? Because you’re human. You may not be in touch with them and so you think you don’t have any, but you do. But wait, if I have them how can I not be in touch with them? You might say. A lot of us block our feelings and impulses, are numb to what’s going on inside of us, feel like we have to be “appropriate” and have learned to squelch what’s really going on inside. Blame modern society, social conditioning, “manners”. If only we could just be cavemen again and let it all hang out! Sigh . . .


Well, actually you can . . . no, don’t move out of your condo in to a cave in the hills. Instead learn to hone those instincts.

Wait, What Are They?

Just to be clear, instincts are those little things inside of you that prompt you to do things. Steal candy when you were a kid, punch your friend when you were mad at him on the monkey bars, eat your entire birthday cake with your hands when you turned one. (No wonder we were taught to curb those little suckers.) Of course we don’t want to hurt anyone or break laws, but that doesn’t mean we have to throw that cake-covered baby out with the bathwater! Those same instincts prompt you to connect deeply to the rejection Medea is feeling or the deadly power rush Macbeth is on. But how can you connect to the instincts demanded by the role you’re playing if you can’t connect to your own?

(Don’t) Row, Row, Row Your Boat

The way in which you approach acting should nurture the connection to your impulses, not deter them. I train my actors to do their “back work” (breakdown the scene, find their verbs, use personalizations, explore through movement and voice, etc.) and then let go in the moment and just work off their partner. I like to think of it as a boat on a river. The script is the river bank, it is already set in stone, the way it curves and cuts through the countryside, i.e., the structure of the scene is already there (so you don’t have to worry about playing the story—and thusly get pulled out of the moment).

The actor is like the boat on the river. They just go along with the current. If they have done their back work, they will be able to fully trust where they are going. If they don’t trust it’s like they are turning on the motor to that little boat and making it go this way and that way, and then boom! They are out of their instincts and their humanity has shipwrecked on the shore. And they probably won’t get an Oscar for that one.

The Instinctive Actor

If you want to super-charge getting in touch with your instincts, I recommend my good friend Jo Kelly’s program The Instinctive Actor. (I actually haven’t met Jo in person, but I’ve been taking her 33 Day Journey From Resistance to Freedom online course and feel like I know her :). The course is intense and amazing. And I have been robbing her blind! Just kidding, but what I’ve been learning from her has not only deepened the freedom I feel as an actress, but has also helped me better articulate to my actors how to be instinctive.

So my friends, live free (with your instincts) and prosper!

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