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. They 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, “Listening 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.