Listen Up!

The most important acting lesson for me had nothing to do with delivering lines. Interestingly enough, this is the same important lesson I learned about being a choreographer, when I was still in college. It’s called “Creative Listening”.
Photo by Ky_olson. Used by Creative Commons license.
I was first taught this concept by Cheryl Cutler and Ran Huntsberry in a Choreography and Improv intensive at Eastern University. They have a great book, called Creative Listening, that I highly recommend (and not just because there’s an anecdote about me in there either!).

Creative listening in choreography and dance means listening to your body and the movement, and letting one movement just naturally unfold from the previous. It’s a very organic way of creating movement. It’s helpful for breaking movement habits and using “steps” to get through a dance, rather than meaningful movement.

It also is a great way to do contact improv. There you expand the listening beyond your body, to the bodies sharing space with you. Where are they? What does that mean for your body? How can you connect? Should you connect? When the focus becomes about the relationship, the movement, again, flows organically.

In acting, this lesson is just as important. Lots of people consider acting the delivery of lines. But the people who must respond to those lines are acting too. And have, perhaps, the harder job in the relationship.

The cliche “Actions speak louder than words” applies here. The face and body are as much a part of acting as the voice and the words. The reaction is as important as the action. Active listening requires not just waiting for the cue, but being present throughout. Being present as your character.

What typically keeps of from listening to our bodies, our characters, the people around us while we are on stage? Sadly, the same thing that keeps us from actively engaging with those things in real life. Fear. Fear of being wrong. Of looking stupid. Of being hurt (physically or emotionally). Of being rejected.

Dance and drama to two vulnerable, personal arts. Your body, face, voice are constantly put out there in front of an audience. A little fear is healthy. It keeps things fresh. It keeps you working to be your best.

But fear that keeps you from listening to yourself and your environment is not healthy. As a performer or a human.

So, some homework.

The next time you are working on choreography, see if you can let the movement flow. Don’t look for a step. Let your body go where it wants to naturally. Even if it doesn’t have a name.

The next time you are in a scene, don’t listen for your cue. Just listen. Stop thinking about what your next line is, and become part of what is happening, right now.

Stop right now and listen to your body. Are your shoulders tight and hunched into your ears? Is your low back slumped and sore? Do you have a lot of energy that should go move, rather than be confined to your computer chair?

In your next conversation with your client, student, significant other, director, listen. Don’t try to figure out the end of their sentence. Don’t start to formulate your own. Be in the moment. You might be surprised what you can learn.