We’ve been going to the theater every week lately because my husband is set to direct a theater piece and wants to basically see everything that is out there.
While I was studying at the conservatory there used to be a saying that the TV is a producer’s medium, film a director’s medium and the theater an actor’s medium. No matter what you did in rehearsal, no matter how brilliant everyone else not on stage was, the outcome of a theater piece well-played lied solely on the live performance and therefore the talent and capacities of its actors.
What I’ve noticed is that there are two fundamental Acting 101 principles that set amateurs from professionals and very good professionals from not so great professionals apart: Listening and Reacting.
Yes, that simple.
I know it’s complicated since we also don’t tend to do it in real life, but I urge you actor to try it out. Try it out on friends. Call them up and invite them for a drink and ask them how they are doing and really listen to what they are saying. Listen to their words, their body language, their gestures. Try to react on what they are giving you, not what you think you are seeing. Try it out with a stranger at the grocery store. Try it out during a fight with a loved one. Fights are the best battle ground to learn how to listen and react. In other words, to be in the moment. You’ve got to be alert enough to actually understand what your partner is saying without being completely self-defensive. It’s not so easy, but if you can master real listening during a fight with a loved one, you know you can do it on stage.
React based on what you are hearing, what is really being said at the moment it is said and not what you think was uttered. It’s also what we do in real life. We have no patience. We tend to fill in the pauses and gaps people give us with a whole new story that wasn’t even there. Don’t analyze a conversation while it is happening. Don’t think too much. Be present. Be aware of your guards, be aware of your defense mechanisms and know that you are also reacting based on your habits and your baggage. When you play a character, it’s basically just exchanging those habits and baggage for your character’s suitcases.
You can’t predict what a person will say in real life and the same should go for anything you do on stage. I know it’s hard, after all you know everyone’s line and moves besides yours, but truth be told it’s what extremely good actors do. They forget they know the entire play by heart the second they step on stage and just listen and react. Seriously.
If more actors would actually listen to their stage partners and truly react upon the moment, you could save any theater play from utter disaster. So if you are an actor rehearsing a play or a director rehearsing a play, I’m offering you a great tip free of charge.
Learn to listen and react in the moment.
And who am I to offer you a tip?
An audience member willing to pay to go see your work.