This is an area that tends to get overlooked in acting classes and in the rehearsal process. The power of silence and stillness is incredible, yet it is often not used at all or not used well. Here are my thoughts on it, and the great part is that you can practice it any time!
Stillness and silence are obviously not the same thing. You can be physically still while speaking or singing, and you can be silent while moving like a whirlwind. You will have to work with your director, coach, teacher, whatever to decide when and how to use each. But here are a few thoughts on where to look:
When the words are enough. If you have been gifted by the playwright or lyricist with words that tell the story perfectly, that convey exactly what needs to be said, and that create change and power all on their own, then explore stillness there. If you can lend your own power to the words, without distracting with movement or choreography, that can be effective beyond measure.
When the words are too much. Sometimes you will come up against a script or a song that is so packed with emotional shifts, or so charged with pain or joy that there needs to be a point at which the character either must take a moment to digest something fully, or to make the next decision, or to allow the emotion of the piece blossom before going on to the next sentence. I’ve told the story before about watching Tyne Daly take a full 30 seconds, maybe more, silently weeping in the middle of a song. We would have waited an hour. It needed to be there.
When you’re not sure how to start. I’m a big fan, especially in audition pieces, to allow the emotion to produce the words and movement, rather than the other way around. We seldom speak or move before we feel we need to in the real world, so why change that in the imaginary world? Take the time you need, especially in rehearsal, to fully understand and experience what it is that is causing you to break the silence and stillness of your character’s world.
When something momentous happens. I mean big things. Deaths, sudden appearances of unexpected people, births, disappearances, a sudden change in circumstance in any direction. We tend to need time to process those. Those of you who have lost someone suddenly, or gain someone suddenly, you know that there is a little bit of time where you don’t fully believe or understand what has happened. Take that time and allow yourself to experience all the colors and physical feelings of that process, and see where it takes you.
When should you combine? The stillness and silence, that is. Whenever it serves the story best. But choose those moments carefully, place them strategically, and don’t use them too often. Like anything else on stage, high usage dilutes the power.
…OR NOT TO USE
When you are using it to search for lines. Taking great dramatic, emotion-filled, still and/or silent pauses while you search for your next line will fatigue your audience and confuse the story, not to mention adding on minutes and minutes to the run time unnecessarily. Learn your lines, earn your pauses.
When it’s someone else’s moment. This is a tricky one, you want to be still and silent, of course, when the focus should be on another actor or area; but if you are too intensely focused on your own character at that moment, you can pull focus. Be authentic, but be aware of the actual focal point of the moment. You CAN use your stillness/silence TOWARD the moment. That takes practice, a little higher level thinking. You can totally experiment in rehearsal/class with that one.
When it’s too soon after the last time. These moments are a little like going to the bathroom. They are necessary, have great urgency, and can be overused very quickly. As you know from your many bathroom trips of your life, going too often can leave you dry when you need it. Wait for it to be urgent.
WHAT ABOUT COMEDY?
Great question. I can always count on you to get me where I want to go next. Comedy is all about timing, and like I’ve said before, to your character, there is absolutely nothing funny about what is going on. Therefore, in general, the same thoughts apply as in drama, with one small caveat:
Earn your pauses in comedy. The short answer is, same thing, but faster and less often. Comedy tends to be pretty fast-paced, especially in farce (watch Noises Off!) so pauses, whenever they come, need to be EXTREMELY strategic. In comedy you may not have enough time to fully realize an emotional state without needing to move or speak, because so much of the rest of the comedy depends on precise and predictable timing. You will usually have to coordinate your still or silent moments with other actors, actions, music, doors, dogs, you never know. Stay authentic, but then speed it up and stay predictable.
In general, comedy, drama, Shakespeare, musical, audition, whatever, you and your director will decide on the strategic placement of these moments. But coming in with an eye towards their existence, their power, and their effectiveness in the storytelling will give you yet another tool in your belt. Of course, when you get your chance to experiment with silence/stillness, you should be prepared with an idea of what to do with that moment. So here’s an exercise that can help you get ready.
YOU ARE ENOUGH
Among the first steps to being an authentic and powerful performer is to start with just you. You, with your own experiences, foibles, flaws, failures, fantasies, and extreme gifts are enough to fill an auditorium with authentic emotion at any given time. The trick is being able to access it at will, and allow it to fill you at the silent and still level. You don’t need a script, a mirror, a partner, anything really, except a little time and space.
Write down (on a series of index cards if you are a tad organized, or just a list wherever- eyebrow pencil on paper towel works too) a list of ten emotions. They can be whatever you want, but they must alternate between positive and negative. They can’t all be emo sludge, or you’ll hospitalize yourself. Here is an example list:
I recommend starting with a negative emotion, as they are easier to access, and then you can end with a positive one, which is always a good practice.
Then, with this list, spend time with each one in silence and stillness. If you want to use a focal point to direct the emotion, go for it; but you can just do this sitting, lying down, standing, whatever. I like to sit, because I can pay best attention to my body that way. But whatever works for you. But the place and time should be quiet and private, when you know you won’t be disturbed for a while.
Here are the steps you should go through:
- Explore the word itself and the images it brings to you. These may be memories, fantasies, even clips of movies or TV, things you’ve seen onstage, whatever.
- Allow the emotion itself to start to take shape inside you. There may be a specific scenario in your mind, it could be nothing but colors and sensation, anything in between.
- Don’t move.
- As the emotion is building inside you, become aware of the physical sensations that you feel.
- Where in your body do you feel this emotion first?
- Where does it radiate (move) to as you feel lit more intensely?
- What does it do to your face?
- What does it do to your hands and arms?
- Touch each part of your body that becomes affected physically by the emotion.
- Don’t move.
- When you are feeling so intensely that you absolutely must move, go ahead and do what you feel like you have to do with your body. This could be standing, sitting, lying down, running, jumping, crying, curling up in a fetal position, or just a bunch of random movements of your hands and arms. Whatever comes organically from this.
- Begin to pull it back in, moving backwards in steps 5-1.
- When you have come all the way back to a neutral space, take a break. Come back and do the next one.
This may take you a week to get through all ten. Or a month. or a year. But keep at it. Stillness and silence lead to great things.