On Hearing and Listening
Back in 2002, and one of the most famous and ubiquitous TV commercial campaigns ever devised was launched by Verizon: “Can you hear me now?”
Just a couple years ago, the director of the show awarded the Tony for best play said the most important thing that happened during the run of the show was that every night, the cast went on stage and listened to each other.
For centuries, actors have been encouraged by directors to “listen” to each other. Our question today is … what does listening mean and how do actors do it?
In his book, Acting for the Camera, director Tony Barr describes his process, which I choose to call “Whole Body Acting.” Mr. Barr discusses the use of the auditory system, and more than simply hearing, actually listening to (processing) what the other actor says. This, presumably, allows free emotional and physical response by the listening actor. That, he says, makes for interesting work on camera, and suggests that directors may even be tempted to cut to the actor listening and away from the actor talking, if what the actor listening is doing is more interesting physically.
Barr further says that as actors, we can “listen” with more than just ears, and that we should also be very aware of the other four senses, too: sight, taste, smell and touch.
He goes on to explain that all of the rest of the senses should also be allowed to be active, and provide stimuli for the actor for a very wide range of emotional responses.
But what do actors do (mostly) but stand on stage and struggle to remember their next line.
Barr doesn’t say, but Andrea Morris (The Science of On-Camera Acting) says that when lines are stuck in “working” memory (the actor has to think to recall them), the part of the brain struggling to remember effectively blocks out any “listening” done by the actor.
This leads the actor to feel they must “act” (do something physically to prove they’re ‘in the moment’) which then feels unnatural or forced.
So, how do actors make the leap from struggling to remember lines and come to obey the director by “listening,” that is, to allow subtle, beautiful, nuanced responses?
First, says Morris (and you knew this was coming), move the lines from working or analytic mind, to passive or creative mind.
Develop the ability to use one or the other when you need it (while studying) and turn it off when not needed (listening). Trying to engage the analytic mind (remembering) zapps the creative (listening) every. time.
The secret, she says, is hiding in plain sight: yup – get off book! But do it right: analyze, learn, memorize – and then say “Thank you, analytic mind. Take a break now.”
Then, you are free to truly listen…
A fully prepared actor with up to 35% of her brain engaged in listening and looking, also sniffs the air and touches her costume and uses her props. He tastes the mouthful of gnats he just swallowed (outdoor theater!?!) walking on stage behind the lights.
With analytic mind at rest and listening engaged, the subtle physical response tied to the emotion running through the actor’s soul is brought now almost without effort to the eyes, hands, feet, body –and most importantly face—which the audience (or camera) then sees (or reads). The actor is judged to have delivered a “true” performance.
“Can you hear me now?”