There is a reason we call them “scene partners.” Every scene is (or should be) a fully functioning partnership. It all boils down to one thing: listening. Good listening will make a scene worth watching, bad listening is a death knell. It is insidiously easy for actors to get so involved in our own acting that listening to our scene partners gets neglected. Unfortunately, neglecting to listen properly in a scene metaphorically douses your beautiful scene structure in gasoline and then takes a metaphorical flame thrower to the front door. (In case you’re wondering, the damage to your scene will not be in any way metaphorical). Luckily, there is an easy fix for this entire calamity. Let’s break down the art of good listening. (And introduce a metaphorical fire hose to the mix? I’m losing track . . . )
How Bad Listening Kills Your Performance:
In order to fight bad listening, first we must know our enemy. Bad listening basically means not listening. Obviously, it cheats your scene partner of the chance at a compelling scene, but the damage is equal opportunity. It hurts the would-be listener as well (hypothetically, you). It robs your performance of honesty, disconnects you from your character, and turns the audience off. Don’t kid yourself–the audience will absolutely notice. If an actor is not listening, he has stopped playing the intention. He is no longer fighting for his objectives. He has cut all his tactics off at the knees, and has neutered the stakes of the scene. Essentially, all those gorgeous acting basics that are the foundation of good technique are rendered toothless by the lack of listening.
Because if you are not fully and honestly engaged with your scene partner, you are no longer living truthfully in your imaginary circumstances. You are denying the world of the play/film/etc. its legitimacy. You are no longer acting at all.
Not only does failing to listen kill your technical performance, it slays all that raw intuitive artistry as well. When an actor stops listening to her scene partner, she is shutting off all her instincts. She is refusing to allow herself the chance to have honest impulses. There is simply no way to remain grounded or connected without listening.
Yikes. So How Do We Fix It?
Excellent imaginary question, astute reader. Now that we have scared ourselves straight, how do we avoid the sordid and short-lived career of a bad listener? Here are some tips to keep in mind when trying to listen in a scene:
Know What You Want. Without a clear idea of your own objectives, you won’t be able to recognize the effects your scene partner should have on you. Always fight for what you want, and remember that getting what you want should depend somehow on your scene partner. If that isn’t motivation to pay attention, I don’t know what is.
Don’t Plan Your Reactions. Yes, eventually some things will have to be set to a certain extent, but especially during rehearsal, let yourself play organically with your scene partner. Changing things up is also a good way to get yourself out of a rut.
Remember What They Mean to You. Knowing the relationship between your character and that of your scene partner inside and out is essential to good listening. Your backstory will determine the nature of your listening.
Stop Watching Yourself. Let yourself live honestly in the scene. If you’re too “in your head”, you can’t be an effective listener. The great news here is that focusing on your scene partner and listening to them will actually help get you out of your head.
Be Generous. If you are tuned in to supporting your scene partner, the listening will happen naturally.
What Goes Around Comes Around
Now that we’ve wasted all this time on generosity, what’s in it for us? Careers! “Careers” is the answer. Listening is one of the first things good casting directors look for. Every time you are called in to read with another actor, it is a test of your listening skills. No one cares if you can act at your bathroom mirror. Most scripts feature more than one character, which means that if you want to be an actor, eventually you will have to play nice with others. So in the long run, listen and everybody wins. No one can stop you now! You have rebuilt the charred remains of your former abode with metaphorical adamantium! Listening saves the day! (And, for real, your acting career).