Neutral is a term that gets thrown around a lot in acting circles, particularly during training. The neutral body, or the neutral voice is used a lot to describe a certain state of being, but it is an often misunderstood acting technqiue.
In this article I will explain what is meant by neutral and how it helps an actor build on themselves, reset and be present.
What is Neutral?
Understanding neutral is a useful concept for actors. Exploring neutral can really heighten your listening as well as enabling yourself to be present on stage or screen. It is through neutrality that you can perceive nuances and shifts in your mind and body. It provides a base layer to build a character on or a pathway and a way to minimise unhelpful idiosyncrasies. It can also help us shed difficult work or scenes and reset for the next run or take.
The first response most people have (including myself when I first started) is that neutral is the absolute opposite of what an actor should be doing. However, once it is understood it can be a very useful tool.
Simply put, it is just being, now in the moment. Our minds, bodies and voices are constantly in response to the outside world. They are constantly shifting and changing in response to external stimulus. Whilst it is of utmost importance for an actor to shift and change in response to external stimulus, we want to make sure all of that stimulus is coming from the scene we are playing and the story we are in. Working through neutral gives us a starting point for any sort of acting work, making sure that we haven’t brought our world into the world of the story, and that we can leave the world of the play, scene or film at work.
Neutral Body, Neutral Voice
As stated above, neutral is your base level. It is not quite a resting state, but instead the way you would view a car’s neutral. The engine is on, but we are not moving. Although anything can happen, right now nothing is. We are neutral. Another way to view it is like we are a marionette with the strings taught but not moving. Again anything can happen, but right now nothing is.
The two neutrals spoken about in acting is neutral body/being and neutral voice.
Neutral body is your body, in balance, unlocked and standing in the most economical form. This does not mean most comfortable, or idiosyncratic, but most mechanically economic. Through our lives we have picked up habits and physical ticks, which inform how we move and stand in front of people or in certain situations regardless of how economical it is. Neutral aims to move beyond all external stimulus new or old so we can just be.
Although this inevitably involves the mind, the neutrality starts from the body. If we were to stack our skeleton so it does most of the work keeping us up, how would you stand? That is neutral. Of course, different bodies will have different neutrals. We are all asymmetrical and different skeletons stack different ways. It is the essence that is important.
Neutral voice is your standard pitch, tempo and resonance. It is the voice as unaffected by external or internal stimulus. It is not conveying thought or emotion, it just is.
Neutral in both cases is used as a check in and a starting point. It is a way of seeing where your voice and body is sitting before you begin work, but also a reference point for you for a character or a state of being. Your neutral becomes a foundation to build any physicality or vocal qualities from. It allows you to be fully present, unaffected by anything outside what you chose to focus on. Having this check in point or base level means that when doing emotional or physically demanding scenes or a work which requires extensive vocal work like accents or screaming, coming back through neutral can return your body and voice back to the way it was at the end of working to how you began.
Neutral Is Not No Energy
The biggest misconception about being neutral is that you have no energy, or you are somehow de-energised. That is not the case. Neutrality, rather than being a descriptor of nothing happening, should instead be looked at as a form of infinite potential.
I like to think of neutral less in terms of myself doing nothing, and instead that nothing is happening to me. By blocking out external stimulus, or my body’s response to it I am able to bring my body, mind and voice to its most free state of being. I am not burdened by what happened to me today or yesterday, or who is in front of me. I just am. Once I choose to accept a stimulus, like a scene, a motivation, interaction or a set of given circumstances, my body, mind and voice can commit to that fully, because it has come from a point of nothing.
Another way you could view it is a spring. A spring by itself does nothing. Without external stimulus nothing can happen. However, if you move it in any direction, it will now have tension. It will want to spring back to place. If you push it down, it will push back. Stretch it out, and it will pull back in. Although the spring itself isn’t holding energy, it has the potential to immediately engage.
As I stated earlier, everyone’s body is different, so everyone’s neutral is different. Whats most important is the essence of it. Different people have different methods of finding their neutral and when you get familiar with it, you can find it simply with breath. Here is how I like to find neutral. If you need to adjust for yourself, hopefully you can find some approximations.
- Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, making sure your feet are pointing forwards and your knees are unlocked.
- Breath down into your stomach so your belly moves, not your shoulders and draw yourself to your full height, again without knees locked or any strain. In through the nose and out through the mouth in a slow cycle.
- Take yourself slowly through a spinal roll. This means allowing the head to drop down and with its weight drawing you down, visualise stacking each vertebra on top of each other until your torso is upside down hinging from the hips.
- Let your knees be unlocked and as bent as you need in this position. Let the arms and head hang freely. Take some breaths.
- Reverse the spinal roll by tucking your tail bone under and stacking your vertebra on top of each other, again with the knees unlocked. Roll the shoulders back then bring the head up last, stacking vertebra by drawing back and up until your eyes are at your horizon.
- Block out anything in your mind and draw attention to your body. Gaze past anything in your eyeline as if you were focusing on the horizon and breath.
- Do not adjust anything! Hold this position and breath. This is your neutral.
Whilst at first it might be uncomfortable, the more you practice the easier it gets. The first sensation you have is to try and ‘fix’ yourself. You will want to shift your shoulders or readjust your feet. Don’t, it’s fine. Your body is just not used to standing like this. Once you have done this a few times you will notice the calm that comes over you, and the ability to just ‘be’ and breathe will become easier. You will also notice that there is nothing sleepy or lax about this stance, instead you are calm but aware.
From here, you can let out a vocalised sigh. Extend it out. If you repeat this you will find that you tend to pass through the same pitch and resonance again and again. Once you believe you have found your neutral tone, bring it onto a vocalised count of ten. This is neutral voice.
So now we know how to find it, how do we use it? What does it do? So many schools of thought on acting talk about neutral. Stanislavski made people sit in a chair on stage for hours at a time to become comfortable just being. Mamet talks about just standing there with a neutral body and resonant voice just saying the line. Strasberg and Meisner talk about starting from and returning to neutral. So why do they all talk about this? What does it prevent?
#1 Neutral For Holding Emotion
One of the big notes I give to emerging actors is don’t hold onto emotion, instead let it pass through you. An actor in training doing a scene will get a burst of emotion. Pleased with the outcome of their effort they then hold the body and hold the breath in an attempt to hold onto the emotion for all to see.
Unfortunately the very act of holding the emotion dissipates it immediately, and an actor holding onto an emotion just so they can feel something has the opposite effect of what they intend for the audience. Instead of holding the emotion, it instead looks like they are forcing the emotion out, or they are fixed in a state, rather than reacting openly.
Emotions move through the body like a ripple. They are elusive, sometimes fleeting, but always moving. Holding onto an emotion blocks us from reacting to the next moment and closes us off from the scene because we have shifted our focus internally.
Instead you should keep breathing and pursue your objective. Practicing neutral and allowing the body to just be means our body is ready to experience any emotion that appears as it appears, for as long as it appears. It doesn’t try to hold onto them, it just reacts freely, for as long as it lasts and then returns to its natural state. Of course in a scene this neutral will not last because the body will freely react to the next moment, and the next moment, and the next moment. What is important though is that it is moving and reacting moment to moment, not holding onto anything.
Practicing neutral, and particularly practicing returning to neutral helps us stay fluid and responsive, rather than fixed or stagnant.
#2 Neutral For Infectious Tension
Tension in the body is a big barrier for actors to experience emotion or pursue objectives, because the body and breath is incapable of allowing things to flow. We have all developed different tension in the body throughout our lives and it is good to rid our bodies of that if possible. What I am talking about here though is the tension that creeps in whilst we are performing. It can be habitual tension, nerves or an attempt to hold emotion or a fixed way we hold our body when trying to perform a ‘state’ (which you shouldn’t do anyway).
For a quick demonstration I want you to freely swing your arm around. Easy huh? Now clench your fist as tight as you can or make your hand as rigid as possible. Doesn’t swing as easily now does it?
Infectious tension is exactly that, infectious. When parts of our body get tense, that tension effects everything else. Tight jaw can affect our throat which in turn effects the vocal cords. Tense shoulders can make our neck and chest tight. Whilst it might not seem hugely important, any tension that is infectious is placing barriers for our body to allow emotion and expression.
Practicing neutral allows us to gain a heightened awareness of this tension. Knowing our neutral means we can breathe out this tension and free up the body ready for the next moment.
#3 Neutral For Dropping Masks
Performance masks are any physical or facial posture that dictate a state of being through body language regardless of the stimulus we are reacting to. Common masks include the smile mask, frown mask, hands in pockets and arms crossed.
For all these masks, this is the actor’s discomfort expressing itself in the body and often works counter to the character objective. . They don’t know where to place their hands, so they become self conscious, so then they place them in their pockets. This exudes complacency or apathy regardless of what else you do. You may feel uncomfortable about how ruthless your character is being, so you smile, undercutting the truth of the line and making you sarcastic.
Although they may feel active, these masks only serve to make the actor feel more comfortable. Almost without exception they dilute the actions of the character. More often than not it’s an actor’s discomfort at just being.
Practicing neutral and being comfortable in this state allows you to be comfortable listening, thinking and reacting without needing to adjust the body for superfluous reasons. Allowing your body to just stop the need for this habitual posturing, meaning you can fully invest in how the character should react and get out of the way for your body to respond how it would naturally.
#4 Neutral For Stopping Character Bleed
This isn’t spoken about much in acting circles, but it is a big problem for the mental health of actors. Character bleed is when the action in the scene or the way a character behaves starts infecting your life outside of the rehearsal room or shoot. Essentially it is the actor bringing home their work with them. If it’s a fun light-hearted script this isn’t a huge problem. If it is highly emotional, traumatic or the character you have embodied is problematic, character bleed can be really detrimental. Even though its make-believe, the better you are, the more accurately or authentically you have put yourself through something that is very similar to the real thing.
During my Masters research on performing violence, I found that the best way to prevent character bleed was to ritualise the rehearsal room by starting and finishing in neutral. This had huge benefits for the actors and meant we were able to go deeper into the work because the actors felt safe that it was compartmentalised from the rest of their day. The returning to neutral ritual meant that their breath, emotions and bodies were reset before they left.
System of Movement
If you are curious about this, or you are aware your body gets in the way, or you get self conscious and make superfluous movement, a great way to practice neutral or extend your practice is through some form of system of movement. Yoga, pilates, martial arts and most dance will have a form of neutral. Although for actors our neutral is perhaps more neutral than a ballet dancer at the bar or a fighter in a kata, experiencing what that zone is meant to feel like can be beneficial to the actor. It reiterates the importance of potential rather then nothingness and demonstrates how the neutral body is energised and capable, not sleepy and blank.
It seems strange thinking that the pursuit of nothing can lead to results in a profession where something is always happening. However, focusing on a state which has limitless potential and getting the actor out of the way of the character will really help you in your performance. It is for this reason that so many acting theorists talk about it, and hopefully you now have a better understanding of what they are talking about and why they do.