Learning to listen
What does it mean to truly listen? Have we lost the ability to really listen? In acting it is a necessary skill to listen like your life depends upon it. It becomes a sensorial experience. All of the five senses are engaged as well as that sixth sense that picks up those things that cannot be explained.
It’s a very different way of listening, different to how we might listen in our lives today. And perhaps we need to retrain ourselves to listen like we did thousands of years ago when our lives didn’t afford us the comfort we now experience and our survival depended upon on our ability to listen out for danger. It’s an alert listening. A listening that will guarantee you can take whatever action is necessary at any moment to ensure your survival.
Most scenes, whether on film or on stage, are set in this moment. The moment where, from the character’s perspective, their life depends upon a particular outcome, and therefore, their ability to listen to and process what is being communicated very precisely.
Because we, as the actor, know the outcome of the scene we often don’t play it this way. And, as a result the scene loses its magic. It loses that feeling that, at any moment, anything could happen. Without this feeling we lose our audiences and the scene dies.
If acting is reacting then you really need to focus very carefully on what you are reacting to.
So how can you improve your listening skills on the stage and screen?
- Learn to listen to things like you are hearing them for the first time.
- Learn to listen with your entire body.
- Learn to listen beyond the line that is spoken.
- Learn to listen sensorially.
- Learn to breathe in what is being said to you.
As the wonderful acting coach, Larry Moss, describes it: “you need to listen like animals in the forest, like your life depends on it”. To which I like to add “because it does.” Both your character’s life and your life as an actor depend upon it.
So how do you do that? You listen to your heart beating, you listen to your breathing, you listen to the sounds in the room and you listen to the sounds outside the room, you listen to your scene partner’s breathing and you listen to the chatting inner monologue of your character. You listen to the sights, the sounds, the feelings, the smells and the tastes.
If you listen like this you will not be able to discover the scene in any other way other than as if it is all happening for the first time.
Larry Moss believes if you are not feeling the rug under your feet, smelling the air and breathing in your acting you are dead because you are not really there.
In the words of Anthony Hopkins, “you just need to shut up and listen sometimes”.
The intriguing and compelling surround us, but we do not notice them. We are distracted by irrelevant nonsense. Creativity can be as simple as seizing on something that has been overlooked by the world and forcing it to take notice.
William Burroughs believes “nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making something exist by observing it.”
Can you make your character’s life heard by listening to it? Give it a try.