“Listen or thy tongue will keep thee deaf”
This direct piece of advice is apparently an old Indian proverb, but I see no reason why it should remain only relevant to times long past. Far too many actors (and people) just don’t listen. I am often very guilty myself of talking so much that I bulldoze through another person’s opportunity to contribute. Often, even if I am not saying something and another person is talking, I am eagerly planning what my response or addition to the “conversation” shall be, having not truly heard a word the other person has been saying.
There is a difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is an involuntary human function. Unless you are deaf or otherwise unable to distinguish sound waves, your ears will always pick up on noise in your environment. Listening, however, is an active human function. But this is frequently forgotten, as can be easily seen in many stage productions where the other actors clearly haven’t absorbed a thing their on-stage counterparts have uttered. Often such actors will “act” listening. They will replace the active process of actually focusing on the other actor’s words as if hearing them for the first time with some faux-realistic tilt of their head or role of their eyes, simply waiting to throw their contributing line out there so the scene can continue. Obviously, this doesn’t make for very engaging viewing.
Anne Bogart, a prominent theatrical director and one of the co-founders of the SITI Company, talks about this on-stage phenomenon in terms of “feed-back” and “feed-forward.” Feedback is the “energy” or what have you that the actor receives from the audience and the other actors. Much like positive comments from a teacher on an exam paper, the “feeback” from an audience (such as laughter or applause) can be very validating for an actor. She believes that too many actors engage feed-back in a disproportionate quantity to feed-forward. Actors take take take, but don’t give back. Feed-forward isn’t halting the energy an actor receives, it is passing it on to the next member of the ensemble. That is the nature of true ensemble acting – individual actors within the ensemble may have their “solo,” but at some point they must return to the group if everyone is to come together to serve the purpose of the play. This is dynamic art, an ensemble of actors that gives and takes, sharing the energy at all times and actively listening. It is something I and many other actors are continually learning and applying. But when connected to the ensemble and to the words they are speaking, the action becomes defined and real. And that is compelling, dynamic art.