Let’s dive a little deeper into the idea of giving ourself permission to act on the impulse. An impulse is defined as
im·pulse | \ ˈim-ˌpəls
1a: INSPIRATION, MOTIVATIONb: a force so communicated as to produce motion suddenlyc: INCENTIVE
2a: the act of driving onward with sudden force : IMPULSIONb: motion produced by such an impulsion : IMPETUSc: a wave of excitation transmitted through tissues and especially nerve fibers and muscles that results in physiological activity or inhibition— see NERVE IMPULSE
3a: a sudden spontaneous inclination or incitement to some usually unpremeditated actionb: a propensity or natural tendency usually other than rational
What makes the difference between a believable action and an action that reads a false or contrived on stage is the ability of an actress or actor creating the illusion of it being an authentic impulse or reaction to external or internal stimuli. The trouble is the most authentic and believable aspect of body language is the gestures that come without conscious thought. It happens faster than conscious thought. It starts faster than we can control it. We can shut it down and change it once we identify it but usually, the damage is already done with whomever we are communicating with. They can sense the deception because they saw you shut down a limbic response. This is why you will hear political commentators talking about “micro-gestures” concerning whether or not a candidate in a debate is telling the truth or not. The brain and especially the subconscious part of our brain is extremely sensitive to seeing gestures that come from the limbic response.
What is The Limbic Response
Read this Article by Joe Navarro M.A.
Joe Navarro is an ex-FBI interrogator, international bestselling author, and body language expert. In this article, he explains more about the limbic response. His books will open your eyes to the world around you. Links can be found at the bottom of this topic.
Why is it relevant to acting
That we can’t control these gestures completely is what makes it the most truthful physical expression of what is being thought and felt. The challenge is that as a performer we have to learn how to make the audience believe that we are having this response for the first time every time we do it. Luckily, if we understand what people do without thinking and why they do it we can more convincingly recreate that on the stage.
Will it be as real and believable as a genuine real limbic response? Probably not, but the better we get at recreating these actions and patterns of behavior the easier we make it for the audience to suspend disbelief and believe that we are being authentic.
The other way we can get these authentic physical responses is by the actress or actor convincing their mind that what is happening on stage is real. This is in the realm of method acting. There are some real limitations here though especially when we consider singing because there are some inherently unnatural behaviors going on stage that make it difficult for the actress or actor to allow themselves to believe in the moment 100%.
The best of both worlds seems to be a combination of learning how to recreate natural behaviors just by what we do with our body and by creating as realistic an illusion on stage or in the mind of the actor so they can get as close as possible to a natural physical response. The exciting thing here is by approaching acting from the “inside-out” ( by starting with an emotional and internal world that is true to the character as the impetus for finding authentic physical expression) or by the outside-in (by capturing the external physical expression accurately being the primary goal that in turn will then influence an actors understanding of their characters internal world) we will see progress.
By approaching it both ways in tandem they end up serving each other thereby helping the actress or actor reach both a true physical expression and an authentic connection with a character’s inner truth.
How do we use these gestures purposefully?
Identify what you do without thinking in yourself by videoing yourself going about a mundane task. Look for limbic responses in people around you by looking for what their body does when presented with stress (good or bad stress both will get a response). Try to imitate what they are doing and notice the effect it has on you the observer. Explore what strong emotions your character might have throughout the show and what self-soothing gestures they might use in response to emotions they might be experiencing.
Hint: Our hands often go to where we are feeling emotions in our bodies. For example, anxious people often have hands that hover around their solar plexus. What we mean by “where you feel feelings in your body” is where do you feel physical responses to the emotions you are feeling? Does your face start to flush? Does your heartbeat speed up? Do your stomach muscles get tight? It is easier for most people to simplify this by thinking “where am I feeling my emotions?”.
It is already there you are just shutting it down.
If you watch closely you will often see limbic responses firing all over the place in performers but they are either too tense to let them be expressed or they have worked hard to shut them down and control them because of past conditioning. The challenge is that the audience wants and needs to see the character’s limbic responses and not the performers. The key is making sure you are giving priority to the right sensory input to get the limbic response you want. Are you focusing on the character’s experience or on your experience as a performer with an audience watching you?
On some level, we have to reverse engineer what our character’s limbic response is so we can then do it on purpose. Remember that what we do on stage has to be repeatable. Consequently, the method actor is focused on getting an authentic limbic response as a classical actor is working on creating a visually authentic-looking physical response that is not tied to real live sensory stimuli to react to.
The change in paradigm is to think about unlocking the impulses and gestures that are already in there and wanting to come out instead of trying to create gestures and actions without taking into consideration your natural impulses for expression. Half the time if a performer is just encouraged to follow through with gestures that are already manifesting in small restrained limbic responses and turn them into full-fledged actions they find that their body already knows what to do. After all, you gesture all day long without having to think about it, plan it, or control it. Why not tap into what is already there?
For a quick look into method versus classical acting read this article.
Self Soothing Gestures
This particular set of limbic responses is crucial. We will discuss gestures later in this course. For now, start exploring the variety of self-soothing gestures people use. They use these when they are extremely happy, sad, angry, or feel just about any other strong emotion. Self-soothing gestures are a way to help us calm down.
The challenge is that your body will be tempted to act out the self-soothing gestures of the nervous performer version of you but those aren’t gestures that belong on the stage. We have to be deliberate about making sure that the self-soothing gestures we use follow the same rules of all the other gestures by applying the “Magic If” principle. If your character wouldn’t do those things to the emotion and action the music suggests than they don’t belong on the stage.
What are Self Soothing Gestures or “Self-Touch”
Tactile sign. 1. The act of establishing physical contact with one’s own clothing or body parts (esp. hands to face; see HOMUNCULUS). 2. The act of stimulating one’s own tactile receptors for pressure, vibration, heat, cold, smoothness, or pain.
Usage: Like a lie-detector (or polygraph) test, self-touch cues reflect the arousal level of our sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response. We unconsciously touch our bodies when emotions run high to comfort, relieve, or release stress. Lips are favorite places for fingertips to land and deliver reassuring body contact. Self-stimulating behaviors, e.g, a. holding an arm or wrist, b. massaging a hand, and c. scratching, rubbing, or pinching the skin, increase with anxiety and may signal deception, disagreement, fear, or uncertainty.http://center-for-nonverbal-studies.org/htdocs/selftouc.htm
What we are talking about here are the ways people engage in non-sexually touching their own bodies in everyday life. Once you start looking for it you will notice that most people are engaging in self-touch much more than you ever realized. It can be as simple as running two fingers together or twirling a lock of hair.
The importance of self-touch is always brought home when the same scene is done two times in a row during rehearsal where one has characters who engage in self-touch and the other when they don’t. Try it for yourself by doing a scene or song without any self-touch. Then do the same song with some believable self-touch. Video it and watch yourself or have a spectator comment on the difference. I expect you will notice a HUGE difference in the audience response and connection with the person on stage as a believable and authentic performer.