Craft Notes by Ed Hooks
"LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN, REALLY LISTEN ..."
Vanessa Redgrave, appeared on Broadway in Driving Miss Daisy with James Earl Jones, sat for a rare interview ("A Reluctant Redgrave, On 'Daisy' And More" by Patrick Healy, New York Times, February 16, 2011). Asked about her craft and the challenges of working in a two-character play, Ms. Redgrave offered this about the importance of listening. "I've certainly taken it as something I've worked on myself - listen, listen, listen, really listen. You think you're listening, but you really have to work at it." Of course she is correct about that, just as it would be good advice that one "...see, see, see, really see..." and "...touch, touch, touch, really touch...". But it is worth pointing out that the kind of listening we do while in a conversation is more complex than it might seem. Let me explain:
In a conversation, we do not take turns listening; we take turns talking. Roger Schank, a former professor at Yale and Northwestern Universities, wrote a book entitled Tell Me a Story - Narrative and Intelligence in which he talks about us being "story based". We tell stories to ourselves and to one another. I am over-simplifying now, but the process basically works like this: Beginning as an infant, you experience things and tell yourself stories about them and, throughout your life, you expand, update and revise those stories. By the time you are an adult, the stories are densely cross-referenced. If, for instance, I tell you in conversation about the wonderful Thai restaurant where I had dinner last night, the moment you hear "Thai restaurant", you will start mentally running through your own stories, cross-referencing to Thai restaurants you have enjoyed (or not), which may in turn cross-reference to your trip to Thailand. This process happens faster than the blink of an eye, and you immediately have a story to tell me as soon as it is your turn to talk. You are only partially listening to the rest of what I am saying because you have that story ready, and you are deciding not to interrupt.
New actors spend a lot of time doing sensory exercises, especially listening. Everybody in class sits very still while listening to sounds outside on the street; you count how many different sounds you can name if you really listen; you listen to the sound of your own breathing and that of your fellow students. The Meisner Technique, a popular approach to acting training in the U.S. includes practice listening in conversation. In "the repetition exercise", two students sit facing one another and proceed to listen and repeat, not as characters but as themselves. Listen, repeat, listen repeat, which is actually the same thing as listen, react, listen react except that the actor is more mindful of the reaction. The repetitions become a kind of organic communication in which both students are reacting honestly.
Some new actors have initial difficulty with the repetition exercise, and I think the reason is because it is counter-intuitive. Our impulse, as Mr. Schank points out, is to talk, not to listen. You listen to the other person long enough to come up with your story. Don't get me wrong, I think the repetition exercise is swell. I have no problem with it at all. I simply think that the exercise is not really teaching an actor to listen so much as it is to be "present", "in the moment".
With respect to Vanessa Redgrave, listening - in and of itself - is not really going to do much for an actor. Ms. Redgrave's special talent is that she allows what she hears to stimulate her emotionally, which propels her into doing something. Listening is not an end in itself, no matter how truthful it may be. Acting is "doing", which means you are playing an action in pursuit of an objective while overcoming an obstacle. Theatrical reality is not the same thing as regular reality. It is compressed in time and space and has structure. By all means, listen carefully. Then do something. One more time: We take turns talking; we don't take turns listening.