Why Actors Don't Listen - But They Really Must!

Why Actors Don’t Listen


“Because it's just listening. Acting is just listening, so if you're really there with a person, you're picking up what they're about..”

Meryl Streep


“The camera likes you if it can see you thinking and more importantly… listening.”

Alan Rickman


Actors these days talk a lot about listening. And sometimes even about ‘really’ listening. Perhaps the work of Sanford Meisner has permeated enough of Western actor training and tradecraft that his ideas on listening are finally taken as common sense.

But I don’t know. Listening is tougher than it looks. Actually, in my experience, even though you’re perfectly capable of listening to your mate tell a story down the pub, paying attention to another actor, ‘really’ listening is a lot trickier than it looks.

First of all, actors don’t need to listen. What I mean by that is that the conceit of acting doesn’t require actors to listen. Every word of the script has been prescribed and both actors often know each other’s lines. The human brain doesn’t like to do unnecessary tasks, so we can easily tune out the other actor until it’s our cue line, because we simply do not need to listen to know what’s going on. And so, actors are basically often faking the mechanics of human interaction. I speak, then you speak. And then we fake our own reactions to what was said.

But if we’re going to be the best we can be. We must teach ourselves to listen again.

We teach this lesson to our beginners in their acting class at Acting Coach Scotland. And then we continue to insist that they learn to listen in lots of different ways throughout their training. The full time acting students are drilled in listening through the fundamentals of Meisner’s listening exercise, and a few we’ve developed of our own.

To listen, isn’t to put your attention on what they are saying. That is listening to lines. Listening for cues. To truly listen, means putting your attention on the other person and listening to the actor, the person standing opposite. It means listening so that you can respond to the human being’s holistic response to you. They don’t just respond to what you say, they respond emotionally, gesturally, psychologically, tactically, tonally, facially - so many ways. And the audience and the camera will catch that too.

When the moment comes to respond, it is a thrilling (scary), adrenalin inducing moment. To wait until you hear what they really ‘say’ - beyond the words. That’s how to truly listen to the other actor - to listen to the actor - to them personally.  Not the inflected writer’s words tumbling from their lips.

But if you want to really do that. You need to train to really pay attention to the actor. Because if you don’t train, then your attention stays firmly on yourself, on what you have to do, on how you should say the next line, or whatever is the next line.

Or you could wait. Hear what you receive. And respond truthfully to what just happened in front of you.

Actors don’t really need to listen. But actors must listen.


Mark Westbrook is the Course Leader of the Full Time Diploma in Stage and Screen Performance at Acting Coach Scotland.


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The 12 Obstacles

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