Listening is essential to being a successful actor,” states Brandon Ivie. “It’s obvious when someone on stage isn’t doing it. Acting is reacting, and you can’t react if you’re not listening as the character.” Ivie is a Seattle-based award-winning director who recently worked as dramaturg and script consultant on the Broadway production of Catch Me If You Can and is getting ready to direct Next to Normal at Seattle’s Balagan Theatre. He says even when it’s hard, the actor must find new aspects to keep them on their toes and try to keep it fresh. “I’ve heard plenty of stories from friends in long runs that space out to the point they don’t notice the set has caught fire!” he laughs.
Patrick Bristow is an acclaimed actor whose career was launched at the Los Angeles improv theatre The Groundlings. In the 1990s he played Peter in Ellen DeGeneres’ Ellen, which led to guest spots on many TV shows, from Seinfeld to Curb Your Enthusiasm. He is currently touring in the live puppet variety show Stuffed & Unstrung, which he co-created with Brian Henson. Despite working with puppets, he knows there’s nothing worse than an actor appearing robotic. “Scenes need to live and breathe and can’t have a ‘here’s my cue’ moment. If you’re just going through the motions, it’s going to show. I know, because it’s happened to me!” he laughs. Bristow shares of a recent “teachable moment” on set for the film Réalité with director Quentin Dupieux. After a couple of takes, Dupieux had to ask him to listen. “I speak fast,” Bristow confesses. “He wanted a little nanosecond for the audience to see the process, and I was so thankful for that direction.”
Turn Up Your Listening
Genevieve Bennett, a freelance director in the Minneapolis area who has also taught acting at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts, says that she frequently sees actors waiting for their cue and is always admonishing them to “turn up your listening.”
“I say to try to hear those lines like you’ve never heard them before, stay engaged,” says Bennett, who adds that being in the moment is the “lovely thing about theatre, that every performance is a little different. You don’t want to be seen as anticipating the next line.”
Katie Cronin has been a casting director since 1995, and most recently is with San Francisco-based Nancy Hayes Casting. She casts for a lot of commercials, and the pressure is on for her to find the right people who can tell that story in 30 seconds. “I’m often needing to find people who can connect,” she says. “And because I come from a theatre background, I like to cast theatre actors.”
Between her own experience as an actress and her years casting, she says, “I can tell in a minute!” if an actor can stay in the moment. “For the camera, you have to believe the actor, believe what is really happening. If you’re not in the moment, you see it immediately.”
Ivie paused when asked if part of the “problem” is when an actor rehearses too much. “On the one hand, I don’t believe you can practice too much. But if too much prep is keeping you from being present, keeping you from reacting, then, yes, you can get yourself in such a rut that nothing can change it.” He adds that rigidity has other downfalls—such as if a line gets dropped, or a prop is forgotten. “Then, if all you know what to do is say your next line exactly as you rehearsed it, you can’t realistically react” because there’s no real listening going on.
“Some people are better at listening in character than others,” Cronin says. “Some people are natural actors, and can make us believe in them. Some people need more help, and some people never get it.”
What Works, What Helps
Listening in character should start at the audition, even if it’s a cold read with another actor. “On a basic level, it’s just about paying attention and being open to what others are doing,” Ivie says.
“Nobody wants to do a scene with someone who thinks they are on stage alone,” adds Bennett. Active listening does need to happen in auditions, and in fact, “all your senses need to be receiving to respond, especially in a cold read.” She adds that for the nervous actor, this has an added bonus: it takes the focus of you and puts it on the other person, and that can help keep the nerves calm.
Insert cliché “that there are no small parts” here, but the reality for walk-ons, or for smaller parts with few lines who are on stage a lot, is that listening in character is especially challenging. “Part of the job of the actor is to figure out how your character is woven into the tapestry of the show,” Bennett explains. “Figure out the reason you’re there. Then it can be the simple things of changing your posture, finding a gesture … but it’s key to find out why you’re there in the first place.”
One thing that can help actors is taking an improv class, where listening in character is absolutely essential. Bristow, who also teaches improv, shares this: “The best listeners trust they can listen. Rather than trying to prepare their response in an improv sketch, they allow the other actor to do his or her thing, and trust they will be inspired to do the next action or line. They don’t have to be ‘writing,’ trying to control the scene, or worrying whether what they are about to say will be funny or not. Audiences actually respond to accuracy as much as brilliant wit. When the other actor is done, the eyes shift, and the next response must make sense.”
Bristow does an exercise with his improv class that he admits is as frustrating as it is effective. When one actor in a scene says or does something, the other has to wait until Bristow clangs a little hotel bell before they speak. “By forcing them to find the air before the line, they inevitably make more accurate responses, more discoveries, and they are more in tune with the truth. Acting is not about trying to fill up every silent second with chatter.”
The Big Moment
And how hard is that big moment? The man confesses to adultery, the gun goes off unexpectedly. All agree that nothing is more important than being in the moment for the big climax. How does one keep that fresh?
“To me, it’s about laying groundwork and not playing the end, not playing to the outcome,” Ivie says. “That’s the challenge in acting—trying to live in the moment as opposed to knowing where the play is going. You play the groundwork, police that the actors don’t get ahead of his or her self. The actor knows every moment—through rehearsing, the blocking, how the gun is held, where to fall,” but listening in character and being surprised every time is critical for the big scene.
Speaking of guns, Bennett actually recently directed Hedda Gabler, so she knows big moments. “The other thing is that, in addition to hearing the line, how will information manifest itself physically? Let me see you land after being told by your partner of 25 years that he or she is having an affair and leaving you. All good acting has a physical component.”