“But we don’t stare at people in real life when we talk to them.” I’ll occasionally hear this from a student I am coaching. In the approach that I teach, we conceive of acting as the pursuit of a real need in an imaginary situation. Since in almost every scene, the source of the sought-after gratification of the need is the other person, the scene partner, actors almost always benefit from directing more attention to that person than they already are, attuning themselves to this other person, receiving off of the other person. This involves LOOKING at the other person. Stanislavsky stated that the basic challenge the actor faces is self-consciousness. The solution is to somehow get the attention off of the self, and keep it off. Easier said than done. But there is no doubt that the actor who receives off of his or her partner, which entails LOOKING at his or her partner, stands a better chance of succeeding at this than one who doesn’t.
So far so good. But here is an actor problem that I encounter in every single ten-week cycle that I teach: it’s the “look away to compose yourself” actor. With great regularity, not to say always, this actor, when she begins to speak, will not be looking at her partner. She will be looking down, or to the side, or somewhere else. But as soon as she starts speaking, she will look at her partner and connect with her. She is partly successful in what she is attempting, because she is really using her words to affect the other person, to influence them in some way. However, because she looks away before she starts to speak, the impulse to speak DOES NOT ARISE out of connection with the other person. In looking away, the actor is taking a moment to “compose herself”. This is almost always a moment of self-consciousness. Because she successfully connects with the other person while speaking, the result is not totally unsatisfying, but it is marred in its moment of inception by the fact that it did not originate in a moment of receiving off of the other person. The impulse is “self-generated”, as my teacher at Yale, Earl Gister, would say. And since it is self-generated, it is self-conscious, at least initially, if not ultimately.
In a way, as the teacher of the class, I am happy when the “look-away-to-compose-yourself” actor appears during the cycle, because I know that by bringing him to make a relatively small adjustment, there will be a sudden and dramatic flowering in his work, right before our eyes. I can count on it right up to 500, as my teacher Robin Bennett used to say. The student may be reluctant when first asked to do it, but when they discover that I will take whatever time I need to to get them to make this change, that is, to make sure he has eye contact with the partner before he speaks, it invariably makes an enormous difference. Much of what the student has digested and prepared about the role is suddenly brought to life. The change never fails to make a substantial impact on those watching. And why does such a simple change matter? Well, as previously discussed, it means that the impulse to speak is borne out of in-the-moment encounter with the partner, and this is an antidote to self-consciousness. Also, a “flow” is established. Flow is not a new age jargon word, but a particular psychological state described by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. When the actor looks away to compose himself, he is disrupting the exchange that (we hope) has begun to develop between him and his partner. The condition of flow depends on a sustained interaction between the subject and his environment (the partner is the most significant element of that environment). By looking away consistently, the actor stops the flow from forming and from gaining momentum and depth.
And why do these actors look away before they start to speak? There are several possible reasons. One is, as I have suggested, to compose themselves, which is another way of saying to maintain a kind of control. If they allow the other person to take pride of place in their attention, then their image of themselves is eclipsed, and they can no longer monitor their own appearance and behavior as closely as they had. Related to this point is that the direct eye contact with the partner is INTIMATE, and that can be uncomfortable or scary, to say the least. Looking into the eyes of another invites bonding, hypnosis, even dissolution of the boundaries of the self. Even if we want to experience these things, we can never approach it without ambivalence. So the actor is always tempted to “look away”, to keep a hold on the proceedings. But to move towards greatness, this is exactly what she must not do.
It is at this point in the process that a student may register the protest that I began this post with: that in real life, we do not generally sustain eye contact with those with whom we interact. There is all kinds of “looking away” that goes on. And this is true enough. And yet it is indisputably true that actors who make the adjustment I describe invariably get much, much more compelling very quickly. There’s a conundrum there. My first way of responding to this point is that in high stakes situations in real life, we may be much more inclined to focus in a sustained way on our interlocutors, as we are often faced with disclosures that are shocking, terrifying, miraculous or incomprehensible, which impact our basic sense of orientation and safety, and to recover that sense, we look steadily at those with whom we interact for clarification, comfort, and grounding. And I encourage actors to find the way in which any scene is high stakes, even the ones that on the face of it seem very everyday and ordinary. That’s because a scene in which the actors are compelled by some kind of urgency is ALWAYS better than a scene in which they aren’t. There’s no contest there.
I think that’s a pretty good reason for asking the actor to keep her gaze on her partner. But there may be another reason. This one is a little more difficult to express, and it involves the idea that acting is not ONLY imitating reality. It is imitating reality in such a way that the vulnerability and the care and the interconnectedness between the characters involved is MANIFEST as they go about imitating the real world. In real life, these things are not typically manifest. The psychologist Wilhelm Reich first described the way in which vital energies are blocked by habitual tensions in the body:
He argued that unreleased…energy could produce actual physical blocks within muscles and organs, and that these act as a “body armor” preventing the release of the energy… These ideas developed into a general theory of the importance of a healthy sex life to overall well-being, a theory compatible with Freud’s views.
In everyday life, most people cannot allow these “energies” to flow freely: there is too much vulnerability involved, and so they “armor” themselves with various tensions and defensive alignments and postures so that should not feel the full pain of life’s slings and arrows. However, part of what makes great acting great is the actor’s willingness to wear his heart on his sleeve, so to speak, and to make himself in some sense transparent, so that these “energies” or passions can become visible and palpable. When in the presence of an actor giving a truly great performance, there is a sensation of immersion in her expanded vitality that is extraordinary and tremendously renewing. And the process of the actor reaching this state, this condition of free-flowing Chi or vitality, is aided and abetted by eye-contact and connection with the other person in the scene. It is not for nothing that they say that the eyes are the windows of the soul.
I also make it clear that I should not be understood to be saying “never look away from your partner”. I don’t want to restrict actors in that way, only to motivate them to make contact with the partner the rule of thumb, and secondary points of focus the exceptions which should be entered into deliberately and not haphazardly. In some sense, it is an “advanced challenge” to be able to have a secondary point of focus, because to do so, the actor has to keep the partner within her awareness even while she is not looking at him. We do that instinctively in real life, as our needs from others motivate us to do so. But the actor in front of the camera or on stage is always confronted with the temptation to focus on how he or she looks or appears, and in looking at something other than the partner, this temptation can be overpowering. So especially in the early phases of his training, while the actor is still learning how to get her attention on her partner and keep it there, I give the actor to understand that when they look away from their partner, they are always in peril of losing the thread of the scene. In terms of staying in the moment, in the zone, in the flow, their partners’ eyes are the best friend they ever had.