The Art of Listening as an Actor
So much of what we focus on developing as actors are the output skills of performance. These are the things which are clearest for us to see in our favourite actors: accents, voices, physicality, costuming and prop work, stage combat, text work and so on. What is far more important and far more elusive for us, however, is the input. In other words, our ability to listen, deeply and truly. This skill forms the foundation of our character and performance, and without it, our work is hollow- no matter how much ‘stuff’ we put on top of it.
In this article we’ll be dissecting the art of listening as an actor; coming to understand why it is so crucial for us as actors, and how to actively develop our ability to listen deeply, to take our work to a deeper level of authenticity and truth.
- Listening for Actors
- Tools for Developing the Art of Listening
- Physical Warm-ups For Listening
- Meditation and Relaxation For Listening
- Wake Up Your Listening By Listening
- Prepare the Senses
- Pursuing Presence in the Moment: 5 Senses Exercise
- Meisner’s Exercise on Listening
- Practise Day to Day
Listening for Actors
Ok, so what are we talking about when we say ‘listening’? Let’s work backwards – lets begin by stating what listening isn’t.
- The truly listening actor is not waiting until it is their turn to speak.
- The truly listening actor has not planned their actions or emphasis before the scene has begun.
- The truly listening actor is not trying to show or prove to the audience that they are, in fact, listening.
- The truly listening actor does not prioritise their own emotional experience over their attention on the other character.
- The truly listening actor does not get frustrated or thrown off balance when another actor makes an unexpected choice.
- The truly listening actor does not operate from tension.
- The truly listening actor will find their thoughts and responses in the moment based on the actions of the other character(s) and world around them.
- The listening actor feels no need to prove that they are immersed in the scene, for they are immersed in the scene and responding effortlessly and authentically to the stimulus around them.
- The emotional experience of the truly listening actor is incidental and cannot be predicted. It is whatever it is, and whatever it is is valid, for it is true.
- The truly listening actor will welcome each and any choice from a fellow actor (within the parameters of safety and consent) for everything which occurs in a scene is a gift for the actor to welcome and respond to.
- The truly listening actor remains relaxed, even in the high stakes moments of a scene.
Listening, when it comes to the craft of acting, is not a skill which is isolated to the ear drums. Listening is a full body experience. It is a state of openness which the actor inhabits, every one of their senses is alive to whatever stimulus should trigger a response. We can, of course, listen and be provoked to a response by another person’s words. We can also, (when our listening is truly alive), be triggered to respond by another persons’ expression, gesture or movement. A smell wafting through the air might trigger a memory for us, if we are aware of its presence. Our own bodies can trigger a response from us, when we notice a new spot on our skin or signs of age we had not noticed before. A cool breeze can trigger us into pulling our coats tighter around us. The type of breathing from a loved one can make us behave in a particular way which we best see fit.
Listening is not simply hearing. Listening is allowing and absorbing every piece of stimulus in the world of a scene.
Even the absence of something is there for us to respond to. A character’s silence or stillness, for instance, can be as loud a response as if they were to scream and shout in your face. When we are alive and listening to the world and people around us, even the smallest of gestures can move mountains inside of us. I often remind actors of this when they are doing a monologue. A monologue, in many ways, is never a monologue. A monologue is always targeted at something or someone, and by virtue of that fact, it is therefore a conversation. And being a conversation, the actor needs to treat it as such. The character does not know that they have been given this block of time to speak everything they wish to say- no, only the actor knows that. So the character needs to allow for the expectation or possibility that something will interrupt them or question them. This expectation requires the actor to be truly listening to what is around them, rather than just indulging in the words they have to speak. A monologue is never a monologue, it’s always a dialogue. It’s always a conversation.
In short, listening is the foundation of the craft of an actor. Without listening, we are simply ‘showing’ and mimicking. This is not acting. Acting is the craft of emulating real life, and truly listening is to allow the audience to witness life.
With acting, the temptation arises through fear to push things upon that which is outside of ourselves. When we speak we take energy from ourselves and throw it into the world. When we move we dispel energy in all different directions. What takes courage, however, is actually to allow energy to come towards us and fill us, and allow ourselves to be observed whilst this happens.
Rather than me keep waxing lyrical about this, let’s watch a master show us how it is done. Watch the following clip from Shoplifters directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. I’d like you to watch in particular the performance of Kirin Kiki, the older of the two characters sitting on the beach.
Far out… If you haven’t seen Shoplifters, do yourself a favour. It’s incredible. Watching this scene makes me cry – and I’m sitting in a cafe right now, pull yourself together, Jack!
What makes Kiki’s performance so amazing in this moment is her utter devotion to openness and responsiveness. She is not concerned about the lines of dialogue she has to say or making sure she says them in a particular way or at a predetermined moment in the scene. She is just alive, within the given circumstances of the story, living, effortlessly.
She is watching her ‘family’ (watch the film and you’ll understand why I put the word ‘family’ in inverted commas) and she seems to be completely in alignment with whatever thoughts arise in her mind. She wants to tell the woman sitting next to her that she is beautiful. When that woman leaves, her shoulders hunch – it seems as though she is listening and responding to the weight of the world and her age. She listens and responds to the skin on her ankles, when did she get these spots? She responds to the sensation of the sand she is sit-in on, she picks some up to sprinkle on her legs. this feeling seems to sooth her experience of angst, she looks back up to see her family in the water. Seeing them, she says, ‘Thank you’. This ‘Thank you’ was not written as dialogue in the script, but the director went on to say that this line became a defining and central moment for the film, and actually re-wrote scenes from the film to support this moment. This masterful moment could not have happened if Kiki was not truly immersed as the character and listening with every aspect of her being to the world around her. Listening, then, as Kiki proves to us, does not take strength, does not take concentration, does not take effort, but rather trust, courage, relaxation and immersion.
So how can we develop our ability to listen? It seems counter-intuitive to ‘practise’ listening, as it is something we do every day and have been doing our entire lives, but there are ways we can increase the depth to which we are listening to other characters in the scene, and by doing so increase our connection to our character and our immersion in the scene.
Tools for Developing the Art of Listening
#1 Physical Warm-ups For Listening
The benefits of a physical warm up before we act are endless. We ensure our ability to do our various actions on stage or screen safely and effectively, sure. but what we also do is physically open ourselves to the world around us, which is all listening is. By physically warming up we are relieving tension in our bodies and allowing for relaxation, which in turn will allow for organic responses to arise within us based on the events taking place in a scene.
So, before your next scene, wake yourself up physically as well as intellectually. Allow yourself to respond to both the verbal and sensorial stimuli of the world by switching all the facets of your neurology on. This may be done in many simple ways, like stretching, yoga, tai chi, or even just simply dancing around the room. Get your blood pumping. Give your skin and muscles a chance to wake up and feel alive, then simply allow them to be.
#2 Meditation and Relaxation For Listening
As we have identified above, listening is achieved when we are in a state of relaxation rather than tension. This is easier said than done, as we all know what stress and nerves acting can provoke. Whatever actions we can make in the lead up to a scene to take the reins back of our physical experience is going to help us. Breathing exercises, meditation, or any calming and relaxing exercise will increase our chances of being able to truly listen in a scene and take our focus off ourselves.
#3 Wake-up Your Listening By Listening
Listening to a music of your choosing can be a wonderful way to wake up your listening as well as the entirety of your emotional experience. Music can be incredibly provocative for us, causing effortless responses for us, from emotions rising to giving us goosebumps and increasing our heart rate. Listening to and being effortlessly affected by music is a good example of the place of openness we want to get to whilst acting in a scene.
So, whilst you’re preparing to act, switch your listening on by listening to something on your headphones. There is not one particular genre I’d say which is best to do this with, you just need to use whatever works for you best. What’s more, I actually find that listening to a range of different tracks can wake me up to the range of possibilities for what feelings of experiences may arise within me. Try listening to Reverie by Debussy, followed by Going to California by Led Zeppelin, followed by I Feel the Earth Move by Carole King, for example.
Remember, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to listening authentically and the experiences which arise for you. What’s important is the process of allowing whatever it is to arise, rather than feeling the need to generate something.
#4 Prepare the Senses
Yoshi Oida, in his acting book The Invisible Actor, writes about the importance of the actor-in-preparation cleaning all the orifices of the body, to allow yourself to receive the stimulus and energy travelling towards you in a scene.
Emma, one of our writers here at StageMilk has written a great article about Oida’s book, which you can find here: Why ‘The Invisible Actor” Is My Ride or Die Acting Book.
And this is the section where she summarises Oida’s instructions to the actor in preparation:
The nine holes, the spine, the hara and the hands:
In Japanese tradition each orifice of the body requires attention. Yoshi gives you simple exercises to work into your practice that brings focus to the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the ears, the anus, the spine, the hara (our physical core and core of our entire self). He considers these our most powerful energy channels that need to be cleared and prepared in order to use your whole being effectively in your work.
These exercises are great to work into your own rehearsal prep or pre-show warmup. Even if you’re yet to acquire any sort of warmups you do on your own to get into the zone, these are a great place to start in order to bring awareness to your body as a complete sensorial instrument.
As I’ve already said, listening is a full body action and experience, so we need to prepare the whole body for the task.
#5 Pursuing Presence in the Moment: 5 Senses Exercise
This exercise is recommended to people who are experiencing anxiety in their day to day lives, but I think it is actually useful for us as actors in pursuing authentic listening, too. Listening is a commitment to the present moment, after all.
The exercise goes like this:
First, begin sitting down with your feet placed flat on the floor, hip width apart. Take a deep inhalation. Next, begin the ‘Five Senses’ exercise. Name (out loud or in your head) five things you can see around you. There is no right or wrong to this exercise. Just name and 5 things. Take a breath. Next, name 4 things you can hear. Take a breath. Next, name three things you can feel. Take a breath. Next, name two things you can smell. Take a breath. Finally, name one thing you can taste. Take a breath.
By doing this exercise you are turning in to the information your sensors are sending to you, and as well as this you are allowing for breath and relaxation to come back to you.
#6 Meisner’s Exercise on Listening
This is an exercise from the great acting teacher Sanford Meisner which I’d like to summarise here for our listening practise.
This exercise is about listening through observation:
Stand in front of another actor, try to ‘neutralise’ your body as much as possible. By this I mean uncross your arms, relax your shoulders and stand with your feet hip-width apart. Next, one of the actors will begin naming the things they see in the other actor. Do this for about 45 seconds to a minute, and for this first round purely name the things that you can literally observe. For example, you might say of the other actor, “You’re smiling. You’re furrowing your eyebrows. You’re breathing. You’re relaxing your shoulders. You’re clenching your jaw” ect ect. Allow the other actor to repeat this process to the first speaker.
Next, repeat this process but name the things your listening and intuition tells you the other actor is experiencing. This is a process free of judgement, so it’s important both actors feel safe in the knowledge that this is not about getting it ‘right’ or being told what or how you feel. This is simply an exercise in becoming alive to whatever signals an actor is giving us in a scene. In life, it’s important for us to refrain judgement and not read too much into the subtle cues of another person, for it’s almost impossible to truly tell what someone is thinking or feeling. For actors, however, this intuition, right or wrong, can be useful in generating behaviour for us.
So, once again, for 45-60 seconds, name what you intuit of the other actor. For example, “You’re holding your breath. You’re nervous. You want to laugh. You’re annoyed at me. You feel more relaxed” And so on. Repeat this for the other actor.
This process, done in a safe environment with trust can really awaken listening for you and your scene partner, and this effect will carry on into your scene. You can read more about this exercise in our artilce about it here: 5 Benefits of the Meisner Repetition Exercise (That May Surprise You).
#7 Practise Day to Day
We can’t really expect to be able to listen with our whole being at the drop of a hat. It is a skill we should be practising and developing on a day to day basis. Get in the habit of practising, at least once a day, the art of actually listening to someone fully. Minimise distractions, give them your full attention. Listen to the words they are saying, but also listen and be aware of their gestures and body language. Listening to their breath and the pace of their actions. Listen to their silences. Listen to what they are not saying.
Practising this skill will probably make you realise a few things. Firstly, how rare it is that we actually do listen with everything we’ve got in our day to day life. Secondly, how much of an active process it is, and how much it needs our attention and dedication. Thirdly, listening is something which cannot be done with force. When done with force, we may feel we are listening to the words of the speaker more intently, but we will start to notice that we are blocking out the other messages and signals we should be receiving in the process.
The art of listening takes relaxation, dedication and practise. So, start practising!
Listening is a skill which is often glorified in the craft of acting, but is rarely given specific attention when it comes to its development. Treat it like any other element of your craft: your voice, body, text work ect, and spend the time it deserves honing it as a skill.
True listening as a character can only come from an intricate understanding and adoption of the given circumstances of a story and character’s life. Once you have done your work, you know your lines, objectives and relationships and are immersed in your character, now it’s time to allow all that information to simply exist inside you. If you have done the process work well, then you don’t need to push for any of that inner life to be present with you. All you need to switch on is your listening. Listen to the people and the world around you, and that coupled with your connection to the story will be all that’s needed for your performance to be embodied and deeply truthful.
So, test out some of the theories I’ve floated in this article! Begin to watch your favourite actors in the moments when they are not speaking, to see how they listen. And the next time you come to acting, place careful attention on the quality of your listening, to ensure that it is alive and present.
I hope this has been a useful exploration for you, and that you feel more aware of the importance of listening in your acting, and you feel empowered and enabled to develop your listening actively as an essential skill which you possess as an actor.
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