The Art of Listening

“Acting is Listening.” Meryl Streep


There is much more to acting than learning your lines and saying them on cue. That’s what parrots do. But to be an actor, a really good actor, you have to learn how to listen.

Actors are storytellers. And good storytelling is predicated on creating conflict and tension around a situation that ultimately concludes with resolution. Your character may get what he wants or he may not. But even if he doesn’t win in the end, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t fight like hell to try to win.

Once you realize what’s at stake (the audience is never going to root for anyone who wouldn’t fight for themselves) and the commitment involved—to get or at least to fight like hell to try to get what you want—then the ebb and flow of the scene becomes clear.

Think about this—if you got what you wanted right away (or if you lost it right away) the scene wouldn’t be very interesting. This is why there is an ebb and a flow to every scene. It’s a tool writer’s use and good actors improve upon to make sure the audience gets the information they need. In this ebb and flow your character is either getting closer to what he wants (winning) or he’s moving farther away (losing).

And this is why it is important to listen. To discover that ebb and flow. When you listen images-1you make a series of discoveries and each discovery lets you know where you stand in the scene in regards to getting or not getting what you want. Is the other character opposing you or are they caving in? Either way the information is valuable but if you aren’t listening you will miss out on the clues that tell you which way you’re headed.

Listening and making these discoveries also allows you to tap into your character’s emotional life. In my classes I suggest the students only use eight emotions: joy, sadness, anger, fear, jealousy, embarrassment, betrayal and confusion. For every scene, they have an objective—get it, don’t get it; they still have an objective. And I ask them, with that objective I mind, “What discoveries did you make?” And once they’ve articulated the discoveries I ask them, “How do you feel about each thing you discovered?”  I discover he isn’t going to give me a divorce and I feel angry. Or. I discover she’s going to defy her father and leave with me and I feel joy. Or. I discover that we are outnumbered and I feel afraid.

By listening we get the chance to make a discovery. Each discovery gives us a chance to express an emotion. And each emotion gives us the opportunity to add variety to our work. And the ability to create variety is what makes a good actor a really good actor.

Are you listening?

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2 Responses to The Art of Listening

  1. Kathleen says:

    Thanks John – listening is the key!

  2. Yvette Durant says:

    I learned this in your class, and this is exactly what I’ve been thinking about and working on for a part I recently got in a short film. This post is so timely.

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