Acting: What do I do with my hands?

Acting: What do I do with my hands?

Today’s blog was previously one of the monthly blogs that we send out by email, but I felt it was relevant to so many actors that I wanted you to benefit from it too.

My entire career as a director and acting coach, I have had that same question asked of me time and again. It seems that when we act, the hands are destined to flop around like a hyperactive T-Rex.

Or if they are not busy doing dinosaur impersonations, they are perhaps engaged in:

  • Penguining (Flapping the arms at the sides.)
  • Waitressing (Arms in a v-shape, like a waiter carrying plates.)
  • The ForkLift (as above but straight out)

As we act, a tremendous amount of nervous energy courses through our bodies. The body does not like this feeling and would prefer a relaxed state and fights to return you to equilibrium. To do this, the body will find any way to dissipate that energy.

If we channel it into our acting, it is a powerful force for good. If we allow it to dissipate, it will find some repetitive habitual gesture to release the tension. But how do we channel that energy into the acting?

For this, we need a brief understanding of the gestural system. The non-verbal communication system works to support whatever we do psychologically. 

In life, if we really accuse or dismiss someone, we do not need to think about what to do with our hands

In other words, the body comes into support whatever the mind is attempting to do to another person. The body is there to enhance our communication through non-verbal signals to the other person. 

If we only act the words, if we attempt to help communicate the meaning of words to another actor -what most people call acting - we will inevitably confuse the gestural system.

The non-verbal gestural system will only support when real psychophysiological tactics are employed beneath what we are saying.

If we do not inhabit truthful psychophysical actions beneath the words, you get T-Rex or the Waitress, the body just gets confused. It says ‘I know you are communicating but you aren’t actually doing anything, so what shall I do? Oh I know, I’ll flap my arms like a penguin – that’s fun.” 

93% of our communication to the audience or camera is non-verbal, so we must employ the non-verbal communication system to our advantage. We can only do this if we have a psychological action to do while we speak:

Mock. Bite. Boost. Educate. Punch. Stroke. 

If you engage in doing something psychological under the surface of the words to another person, the gestural system comes to life and supports what you are doing.  So to answer the question – What do I do with my hands? The answer is not in your hands, but in the psychological actions you undertake in your interaction with the other actors.

To You, the Best 


Mark Westbrook is the Senior Acting Coach at Acting Coach Scotland, a writer, director and artistic associate with Delirium Productions, Glasgow, Scotland and Little Spoon Theatre Company, Sydney, Australia.

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