What? One of the most important things for an actor to do is to listen. You cannot act if you're not listening. Listening is not something you can fake either. It doesn’t mean to stare intently at someone, or cock your head a certain way. It means to absorb what is being said and how it’s being said. Listen with your full body. Understand and interpret what the other person is telling you. Listen with the intent of forming a point of view or an opinion. Observe, check in, and take inventory of your immediate surroundings. Be a sounding board for everyone in the scene with you.
A great device to use when listening is what I call a “trigger.” A trigger is any word, phrase, or gesture that another person says or does that causes a reaction in the person listening. Using triggers will help you to actively listen.
We experience triggers all the time whether we realize it or not. Let’s say you are in a conversation with your boss and she says, “When you hand in that report on Monday we can talk about your promotion.” The trigger word there might be “Monday” if you thought the report was due on Friday. The word Monday will cause a reaction from you because it was not what you expected to hear. You will react before the person is finished talking rather than after.
Here’s a good example of a trigger from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams:
MAGGIE: …Yes I made my mistake when I told you the truth about that thing with Skipper. Never should have confessed it, a fatal error tellin’ you about that thing with Skipper.
BRICK: Maggie, shut up about Skipper. I mean it Maggie, you got to shut up about Skipper.
I have highlighted the trigger word, the first mention of “Skipper.” When Brick hears Maggie say Skipper the first time, it has an impact on him. It certainly gets his attention and causes him to react while she is still speaking. His cue to speak is not until the end of her line but he should be reacting to the trigger word as soon as he hears it.
Use your five senses to absorb what your partner is communicating to you. When you are focused on your partner, the slightest smile or gesture or inflection of their voice can change your whole point of view. The scent of their perfume can cause a visceral response in you. Their touch can affect you in so many ways. I’m not suggesting that you let your partner do all of the work, but allow their behavior to trigger your response and clarify your relationship to them.
If you’re not focused on your partner then you can’t behave truthfully. Focusing only on yourself is extremely detrimental to your acting. Being self conscious and judgmental will keep you from doing good work. It will put you in your head and remove you from the present moment.
The answer is in your partner. Many teachers and directors I’ve worked with over the years have given me this invaluable advice. I embrace this phrase and use it all the time. Knowing that the answer is in your partner will help you to be an excellent listener. Remain available to your surroundings and your responses will be effortless and honest. The answer is in your partner – that is the truth.