Good actors listen. Meisner teachers will tell you that good actors “really listen”. But like most things in acting, there is more to this than meets the eye.
We know our way around our own lives. There are people we know well, and we have a good sense of what to expect from them, both in the way of satisfaction and of grief. This expectations mean that we don’t just listen to them, we listen for something when we listen to them. Other people are strangers, but as fully socialized adults, we are past masters at reading context clues and knowing what we can expect of others based on our knowledge of the world. We know that when we are wandering around Best Buy, people dressed a certain way (store uniform of sorts) are answerable to us as shoppers, and we can prevail on them of help.
These expectations are not just about what will happen, but also about how these expectations will affect us. We are looking for needs to gratified and vulnerabilities to be handled with care.
So when we listen in our real lives, we always immediately know what we are listening for.
As actors, not so much.
As actors, we are attempting to be someone else, and that someone else has a view of their own needs and expectations about their world. So not only do we need to take in what happens around us, but we need to understand the needs and expectations that we bring to those events. No easy task.
In my class, we always look to articulate a visceral, gut-level need that the character is pursuing and that shapes their expectations about the situations they encounter and the outcomes of those situations. This need lives in the belly, and one consequence of this is that we see listening as something that happens not only with the eyes and ears, but also with the belly button. I had an opportunity to speak with a psychiatrist recently who told me that recent brain science suggests that that there is actual processing that goes on in the belly, so this is more than a metaphor. He told me about a book called Mindscape that I am looking forward to checking out.
When I am acting and have managed to connect to that need in the belly, the sensation is always that I am generating some kind of suction in my belly as I listen to my partner, I am “sucking in” what is coming at me in the scene. This is a much more active process than is commonly imagined. Because I am bringing needs and expectations to what I see and hear, these needs and expectations prompt me to “suck in” what I encounter, so that I am not merely observing the events around me, but measuring their significance to me.
An additional complication is that if the actor is attempting to “listen” with the need in the belly, it’s possible that other parts of the body, particularly the areas of the body below the belly, that is, the groin and the legs, may go to sleep, because of the hyperfocus on the belly. This is remedied using Uta Hagen’s notion of destination. If an actor knows what the possible spatial outcomes are of what is transpiring around them (someone may come closer to attack or to show affection, or someone may leave, or it may become necessary for the listener to leave), then the actor is listening not only with their gut and upper body faculties, but with their faculty of locomotion, with their hips and legs as well.
Some actors don’t listen at all, some listen with their eyes and eyes, some listen with their eyes, ears, and in their chest (heart), but it is listening with the belly and the lower body that attests to the visceral importance of what is transpiring in the scene. And that kind of listening, no one is going to be able to look away from.
So go one and get your suck on! Your acting will never be the same!