The bedrock of acting, a core fundamental skill, is the ability to listen. The power of our voice is directly connected to the power of listening. If, when we are listening, we are thinking about what to say next, judging what has just been said, worried about criticism, or concerned about our physical appearance, then we’re not fully present. We physically shut down, and sabotage our ability to respond from unanticipated moment to unanticipated moment. Actors often describe this experience as, “I’m stuck in my head.”
The Discipline of Being Fully Present
In life, it’s easy to function without being fully present as listeners. On a checkout line, for instance, we may hear the information we need without forming a connection to the speaker. In casual social settings, we may politely nod our head and maintain eye contact, without being profoundly changed by what is said. Actors must demand more of themselves than what is serviceable in everyday interactions.
If we deepen our listening, we detect the details and tiny movements of the speaker’s face, notice their behaviors, perceive their mood, and feel the vibrations of their voice in our own body. We are susceptible to the nuances of the range, volume, and resonance of their voice. We are shaken by the texture of their consonants, and stirred by the length of their vowels. If we open ourselves up to it, we might even feel something of what they feel as they are speaking.
The Connection Between Breathing and Listening
Breath is the key to this kind of listening. When our thoughts are elsewhere, the breath is almost definitely being held. When the breath is held, muscles in the abdominal area, chest, jaw, tongue, and throat are tightened. Without enough breath to support it, the voice will need to be squeezed out by these already tightened muscles, the result of which is some combination of monotone, strained, inaudible, or mumbled sounds. There is limited access to the rich resonating chambers in the body, resulting in a diminished expressive range. In this way, what we do when we are not speaking is as important to the freedom and connectedness of our voice as what we are doing when we are speaking.
When we truly listen, the body is relaxed and attentive, and the breath is free to travel where it needs to as called upon by the feeling of what is being heard and what is to be said. We then can be changed by the person we are listening to and respond to the subtext of what they have communicated with their full being. We are not stuck in our head: we are free in our body, and set up to respond with the full power of the voice. This is not easy to do in the imaginary world, and takes a full commitment to serious actor training