The Ability To Listen

One of the most essential qualities a good actor must possess is the ability to listen. And it’s not good enough to just look like you’re listening, you must be actively involved in the process of listening – as if hearing something for the first time. Many actors agree that authentic listening is one of the most difficult skills to master. Genuine listening, it sounds simple but it is not.

How do you trick your mind into inhabiting the realm of the character, into that naïve and innocent state where you are genuinely hearing something for the first time? And how do you react naively and innocently to what you have just heard? Listening and responding cannot be programmed, they cannot be planned, and they cannot be manufactured. Thunnamedey have to happen in the moment. It’s one of those aspects of acting that require the actor to do less or even nothing in order to obtain a moment of authenticity.


Over the past year or so I have been on a mission. I want to connect with some of the best acting teachers and coaches I can find. My goal is very simple: to strengthen and energize the creative relationship between directors and actors.

In my years of teaching directing I have developed a unique and powerful way for directors to engage with actors in the process of developing characters. And now I want to share my thoughts, discoveries, ideas and techniques with acting teachers so that we may begin a dialogue that might lead to better communication between directors and actors.

Over the past two years to have met some extraordinary teachers in Los Angeles, New York and Europe. I have observed workshops, master classes, lectures. I have engaged in fruitful conversations about the actor/director communication. I have had the opportunity to demonstrate my techniques (the Interrogation Process) several times with great results.

Yet, occasionally, my requests to meet have been greeted by a response that is not only unexpected but also disturbing.

Over the past few months, on three different occasions, I have met with a resistance and rejection that appears to be disinterest but that feels more like something more serious.

Three credible and renowned teachers have told me, in so many words, that they are not interested in having a discussion about the communication between directors and actors. Twice I have been denied an opportunity to observe their work (an opportunity they openly offer to potential students). One teacher even told me that it would scare her to have me observe her teaching. Two of them told me that there was no room for me in their curriculum, even though it is clear that I not seeking employment or their consideration of my techniques within their programs. I have extended invitations to all three to attend any of my workshops so that they could become familiar with my work. None have accepted. None have responded to the invitation.

I have been thinking about these odd reactions for some time now and I am struck by a few thoughts. Why are they so resistant? Why so closed off? Why are they not even willing to listen, to hear what I have to say?

And now it seems clear to me that these teachers are afraid. But afraid of what? Could they be afraid of hearing something new? – of their work being exposed? – of being confronted or challenged? I don’t know.

What makes this particularly odd is that these are three individuals who have dedicated their lives to the teaching and training of professional actors. And each of them has gained enormous success and recognition. They train actors to be open, vulnerable, exposed, and honest; to be fearless in the face of obstacles and oppression, and to be courageous in the face of adversity and challenge. And yet, (it seems) when they themselves are faced with similar circumstances their reaction is to hide and take cover. How sad.

All I want to do is open up a conversation. I want to strengthen and clarify the communication and collaboration between directors and actors. And I would think that other teachers of acting and directing would be interested in joining in this conversation. True, many are. But apparently there are several who are not.

In one master class I posed a simple question to the teacher during a scheduled Q & A. “In all of your training and coaching of actors how do you prepare them for the challenging process of working with directors, especially knowing that many directors don’t communicate well with actors?” Sadly, I could see that my question threw him. He did manage a response that detailed the many challenges of directing and how dealing with the actors was simply one of these challenges. And it quickly became clear to me that his teaching and coaching programs possibly did not address this issue specifically.

When I was at the Yale School of Drama I was privileged to study acting with such gifted artists as Stella Adler, Bobby Lewis and Jeremy Geidt. And I remember in one class Bobby Lewis told us, “unnamedListening is not just hearing the words. Anyone can do that. Listening is hearing what is behind and underneath the words. Listening is allowing your subconscious to connect to the subconscious of another. Listening is vulnerability, openness, and acceptance of not only what you hear but also of what you feel. True listening is allowing yourself to receive and embrace the truth of another. And by ‘accept’ and ‘embrace’ I don’t mean that you have to agree or approve, but you do need to let it in, unfiltered, unmonitored, uncensored.” Bobby Lewis was one of my mentors who continually encouraged me to explore and expand my imagination. I miss him.

We are artists in a highly collaborative medium and much of the time we are not listening to each other. We are filtering, monitoring, censoring. How can we learn how to take in what irritates us or scares us? How can we learn to be patient and how can we genuinely listen to the long-winded and pompous, the shy and the faint of heart? How can we listen to the braggart and the boring alike?

I know that I am often afraid to listen and let those conflicting and confusing voices and thoughts in. Perhaps my fear of listening is telling me something. Something I need to hear. Maybe I should just stop and listen to my fear.

8 responses to “The Ability To Listen”

  1. Charlie Bury

    Very interesting Mark.

    I find it particularly hard to listen in any walk of life – that is to truly engage in and around the words. I remember my school reports always used to say “he struggles with listening” although I was adamant that I always did listen. In fact, what I did was simply look at them.

    Not a very relevant example, but reading this reminds me that it is an area I wish to develop further. There are obviously a number of factors that affect our attention, but to actually embrace another’s words and let them boil in your subconscious is not easy. The teacher used to test us by saying, “well what did I just say?” – “How unfair!” I’d reply. No one has a memory like that I used to think. Well, of course, the actor must!

    Engagement is definitely the key. I can’t wait to see how your teaching tackles this – I suppose it underpins all your tools for directors working with actors – engagement that is. Very best.

    1. Mark

      Thanks, Charlie. Yes, and I look forward to the opportunity for you to see how my teaching tackles this. It’s not in a standard or predictable way. In fact, the action of the actor’s listening is nothing compared to the commitment to the character listening. And that’s what I stimulate. You’ll have to see it to see how it works.

  2. Jim Pallett

    Thanks for this Mark, the Bobby Lewis quote is especially specific and helpful. Whenever I have an opportunity to see you, to work with you, or to read you, I learn something creatively useful and meaningful. Thank you Mark, Jim.

  3. Ross Jones

    Thank you for this, Mark. I took your workshop in Hawaii a few years back and now live in NYC. It is wonderful that you are opening up this dialogue with teachers and students, and sad that others seemed threatened by it. It just may be an ego thing with some of them.
    After 30 years of studying with different teachers and varying techniques, I think I have come to believe, for me, listening IS the work. Yes, there is other work to do, but best to ingrain it in your unconscious and heart, trust it will work through you, but just really listen. My teacher/mentor Caymichael Patten, who studied with Harold Clurman and others greats back in the day, will often ask after a scene is finished, “well, were you really listening, FOR REAL, FOR REAL.”
    Hope you do a workshop in NYC sometime.
    Best, Ross

  4. Ty Granderson Jones

    It ain’t rocket science for a seasoned person who is an artist such as yourself. You hit it dead on. Fear and insecurity. And for some reason you will find those teachers, actors, writers and directors who are tremendously successful….the most closed and fearful and insecure forgetting about the fearlessness that got them there. Shame. Sad. As for the teachers….perhaps they themselves do not believe some of the crap they are teaching, perhaps due to not evolving as every season a young aspiring actor calls upon their journey thru them…which as times and the game changes…so does approach.

    1. Mark

      So great to get your passionate response. Looking forward to the next time we work together.

  5. Mary VanArsdel

    Love this post – as I do all your posts, but this in particular. I see no credible reason that you were denied a collaboration with the acting teachers in question, other than what you said – fear. So often I have encountered teachers in many areas of the business, who place more importance on their own “stardom” and their “star students”, than on the ongoing exploration of the art and craft. We are all students in this life and should always be looking for ways to continue learning. You posed a wonderful question to them – the fact that it couldn’t be answered by some exposes a disconnect between the classroom and the world of actually working. On the subject of listening, I have always strived to do that authentically. What begins to annoy me is how often I encounter a lack of listening in real life – whether in families or ordering in a restaurant. Perhaps that too easily bleeds over into performances. Keep up the great work Mark – out of all the dozens and dozens of shows I have been in, you are still my favorite Director! Let me know if you are ever in New York City, where I currently live!

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