There are numerous and varying definitions of what comprises good acting, and some are even in stark contrast to one another. Given the abstract nature of creating moments of truth and reality set in imaginary circumstances, it is not difficult to imagine that various opinions and interpretations of when these artistic moments are fully achieved lead to disagreement and debate. Most can agree however, to suspend disbelief for an audience – drawing them into a private world that is believable requires tremendous humanity and connection. No matter how big the Hollywood budget, how many special effects explosions, intricate costumes, or elaborate sets there are, in the end the truth of the connection and the humanity between the actors in the film are what draw the audience into this private world and make them feel as if they are a part of it. So, how does the actor achieve this connection?
If we accept the premise that the connection between actors is a key priority to making the moments on screen work, it is necessary to understand how meaningful connections are achieved. If you think about it, how is any interaction between two human beings meaningful? Only when two people are listening to each other and responding to the stimuli given moment to moment, can the potential for deep human interaction ensue. We’ve all been in the opposite situation -the conversation is one sided and the person with whom we are conversing is so completely and utterly self involved they lose our attention and we drift off to other places. Conversely, when someone really listens attentively to what we have to say, our attention is wholly and fully focused on that person as well. So what does this have to do with good acting? Everything!
A good actor is always a good listener…period. When an actor feels off his game or says something like “I just don’t feel like I’m in it”, it usually has to do with a preoccupation with something going on inside his head that is keeping him from listening. One of the biggest challenges many actors face have to do with the very things that preclude them from experiencing their very best work. Self consciousness, struggling to remember lines, week cold reading skills, playing for outcomes, pushing emotions, and many other self destructive pitfalls appear over and over to the growing actor. Once the focus can be taken off one’s self and put on the actor/s with which you are working, there is a real chance for something exciting/deep/meaningful to happen. Focusing on the need for what you are trying to get from the other person rather than living inside your mind with its distracting and oblique thoughts is the first step towards greater growth and maturity as an actor.
As a good exercise to improve listening skills, try selecting scenes to practice that are not dialogue heavy…where the majority of your role will require active listening skills coupled with logical and necessary responses based on the stimuli provided by the other person. Observe and listen, then respond truthfully without thought to how you will respond. By taking the attention off of yourself and putting it on to the other person, you will automatically be more interesting to watch. You might feel as though you are not “acting” or “doing” something, but you’ll be infinitely more interesting to watch than an actor who is up in their head trying to remember the next line or deciding how to play an emotion. It’s not about how many lines are delivered; it’s about what is behind them that matters most.
Another good way to practice becoming a better listener is to simply start listening more to other people in your everyday conversations. Really listen and ask questions, then wait for the entire responses. Not only will it make you a better actor, but it will make you a decidedly better person to be with as well!
Although arguments about what constitutes quality acting and how it is achieved will continue in perpetuity, the actor should make mastering listening skills the highest priority. For in the honest connection between people lies the magic we all pay good money to watch…again and again!
Remember…you are enough!