"The Key to Everything"

Listening, is generally acknowledged as being the most fundamental of acting skills. The character needs to be listening to exactly what is being said to them so they can respond to the complexities of the interaction.

Some actors learn what they are listening for, when they learn their lines. This guarantees that during the scene they never have to really listen because they already know what they need to hear. It also guarantees that they never have to actually make a decision or choice during a scene because those choices are already made. The consequence of this is that they will always appear to be ‘acting’ for their performance process does not in any way parallel the way we behave in life. Actors who work this way will often ‘pretend’ they have heard the conversation in a particular way, even though it has not being delivered to them that way.

In the real world we have to listen or we can’t participate satisfactorily in the ordinary transactions of our daily life.

Rehearsal Room workshops sometimes have lengthy discussions about the ingredients of listening. These converstations are often very moving as actors explore not only the way they listen on stage or on the set but also the way they listen in life. The revelations are often quite profound – for many habits, idiosyncracies and fears affect our listening in the real world. These same elements will also make our characters listen in complex and indvidual ways. Listening is a complex topic.

However, the following list that emerged from one of these conversations merely reflects, that like all the essential ingedients of acting, the most important ones are basic commonsense. Actors ignore commonsense fundamentals at their peril.

This is not a list of the wide range of diverse elements that influence our listening but rather an attempt to clarify the actual things we do when we are listening. The following items are what one particular group decided were the specific functions of listening. See what you think.

The group decided that in a real world we listen to ourselves to monitor -

  • The sense of what we are saying (story)
  • Whether it is working towards achieving the conversation goal we are pursuing (story/text)
  • How much we are committed to this point of view and whether what we have said reflects that commitment (story/text - sometimes in real life we discover when we say something that we are in fact more committed or less committed than we thought we were - this happens to the actor too, for sometimes when there is a short preparation time we haven't had time to think all the detail through - so we may discover things about our commitment during the conversation)
  • Whether what we are saying is jeopardizing our chances of getting our 'need' or whether we care about that effect under these circumstances (sub-text)

And we are also listening to the other person to see

  • If they are understanding the point we are making (story/text)
  • Whether they agree with us (story/text)
  • What our chances are of convincing them (story/text)
  • Whether there is any hope of our 'need' being fulfilled (sub-text)

All these elements will affect our next choice.

In ordinary conversation we keep all these elements in balance OR rather the balance that all these ingredients naturally have, effects the nature of our choices and the outcome of the conversation. When we are acting the same needs to be true. We listen to all these elements so that we can understand the balance they have in our character's world and therefore be able to make the next decision for them. Sometimes this is quite complicated and we need to take a moment to assess or re-assess their balance so we can be sure about the choice. Those moments of assessment will provide strong drama and a very complex, truthful reality for our character. They provide moments to be savoured by the actor. The audience will thoroughly enjoy them too.

Additional Revelation
While analysing this list during the 2007 Summer Intensive we realized something else. In both groupings the preponderance of our listening is to story elements. We are mostly listening to the nuts and bolts of the coversation that we are having now. According to our list 75% of the elements we are listening to are the obvious mechanics of conversation. Only 25% was focused on unconscious desires or psychological ‘needs’. Although this is a fairly arbitary way of measuring these ingredients it REPRESENTS A SIMPLE TRUTH.

In addition, the realization that struck a number of the actors in this group was that when they acted they tended to operate in reverse. They pushed their unconscious thoughts to reveal them and they suddenly realized this was the most important element that made their performance unbelievable. One actor rejoiced in this discovery, “This is a huge relief. I find pushing my emotional connection really hard. It’s uncomfortable and it never did make a lot of sense to me as people generally hide their feelings and desires.” There was an instant and noticeable improvement in acting outcomes for this actor from this simple revelation.

January 2007

Copyright © The Rehearsal Room 2007. All rights Reserved.



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