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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Impulse Control

The age old debate: which is more important, raw talent or technique?

Technique includes all of the learned skills of any art form.  For acting, it's training in voice, dialects, movement.  It's learning about objectives, internal obstacles, actions.  It's experience with animal imagery, Alexander technique, Laban.  It's the knowledge that comes with work and experience.  Craft.  Oh, and please don't think that this is a comprehensive list. :)

Raw talent, at least in the way that I look at it, is you. Your personality, your charisma, your... wait for it... impulses!  It's all the things that make you unique and worth watching (and you are, by the way.  Just in case you are wondering).

Anyone that's watched kids playing on the playground knows that impulses are fun, vibrant, exciting. They're also chaotic, inconsistent, sporadic.  Technique, on the other hand, is all about structure.  Consistency.  Order.

Those two things don't seem compatible, right?  And so, actors have had a tendency over time to go in one direction or another.  The raw talent types have a tendency to be bright lights that burn out quickly, but make a pretty big impact.  Marylin Monroe, James Dean, River Phoenix and Heath Ledger are some good examples.  The technique actors tend to be longer-lived, but sometimes don't have the same emotional impact in the moment.  Lawrence Olivier, Glenn Close, Kenneth Branagh and Richard Dreyfuss are ones that come to mind for me.

So that's it, right?  We're screwed.  We either go for the gut-level talent stuff and flame out, or we distance ourselves through craft and structure for a life-long career that leaves the audience ambivalent.

Not so much.  There is a third space.  It's the space of the fully trained and connected actor.

There are examples here, too.  Sir Anthony Hopkins, Meryl Streep, Dame Judy Dench, Kevin Kline, Sir Ian McKellen and Alan Rickman are some of my favs.

How do we do it?  Well... we use the craft to inform and shape our talent.  Here's a practical example.  We use the term "action" or "tactic" to describe an impulse.  We chose active verbs like "to punch" to describe what that impulse feels like.  Natural impulses are always more vibrant than a thought-out active verb.  But impulses can be incredibly random.  What to do?

Well, as long as our impulses are channeled through our objective, they will work.  If we are using those impulses to get what we want, it will be focused appropriately.  And there's another benefit.  Because it's channeled through the structure of craft, it doesn't burn us out in the same way pure, un-managed talent does.  We stay sane.  In fact, take a look at all of the actors I mentioned in the third category.  They are more than just "not crazy".  They are incredibly grounded (as far as I can tell, at least).

And really, that's what I want.  That's what I strive for.  I want to grow and expand as a human being while I develop in my craft.  I want to be there for my wife and my children.  I want to teach others what I've learned from my teachers, so that they can experience the joy that I have.

We don't have to buy into the "tragic artist" stereotype.  We don't have to live our lives by that false standard.  We can have our cake and eat it, too.

Oh, one final plug.  If you are going to go in one direction over another here, go with training. #justsaying


  1. How were Dean, Monroe, and Ledger not "not crazy" exactly? Everybody who has met Heath know he was possibly the most grounded individual in hollywood.

    And to say that they burned out isn't fair. To burn out is to be really talented and then lose that talent. All of them were continuing to get better and better, and their paths were cut short by unfortunate accidents.

    On the matter of technique, Dean and Monroe both studied with Strasberg and the Chekhov in Hollywood. Ledger practiced Alexander technique and he approached all his roles as physical characterisations through that channel.

    And then there's the matter of the inevitable. Acquiring technique through work and experience. In any profession, any job, people acquire personal techniques because that's part of the human nature. To make things more efficient and easier for ourselves, so that we can reproduce desired results.

  2. Technique is the foundation of putting excess energy (aka impulses) to use through an outlet that is productive. It is no less passionate or pivotal but when our impulses burn us out it doesn't mean our light is extinguished, it means we have exhausted our physical selfs to burn too brightly too fast, the impulses become all consuming. Yoga, Thai Chi, Karate, boxing; all forms of great impulse control teach us how to settle the energy in ourselves & use it productively,not just to grow but to survive. As an artist in general I have struggled in working & running a house on top of having my outlets; writing & drawing. Finding a balance is necessary & not allowing one necessity to out weigh another till the point of exhaustion is hard but in time you learn how to do it, how to master it how to redirect your energy as best you can.Thank you for making it clear to others that artists can suffer for their art but not to the over exaggerated point some have. Hard work is hardly suffering if it pays off with many years of talented progress.