You want to hear the one piece of advice we give at StageMilk more than anything else? “Communicate with your fellow actor.” Simple as that. In fact, it’s so simple, it’s often the one thing that gets forgotten by actors in a flurry of line-learning, mark-hitting, costumes, make-up and nerves. So let’s take a pause, perhaps a deep breath, and talk about an acting fundamental. Let’s re-learn how to communicate as an actor.
Knowing how to communicate as an actor is all about listening and responding: speaking with purpose and reacting accordingly to what your scene partner offers in return. Doing so makes a scene feel alive and spontaneous. However, failing to do so can result in ‘fake’ acting, in which you seem unable to respond naturally or believably to the stimuli of the story.
Before we dive into this article, here’s something to keep in mind: communication is so much more than talking. Just because your character has dialogue with another person doesn’t mean that you’re communicating. So as you read the below pointers, remind yourself that communication requires active participation. You won’t get there unless you make the effort. Everything else is literally just noise.
How Important is Communication?
It’s everything. Communication is the conveyance of the thoughts, views, wants and needs of your character. If they are unable to communicate, there is no possibility for drama, as no conflict can be established. As communication helps a character pursue their objective, and navigate how to get there via their actions/tactics, a lack of communication can kill the momentum of a scene.
Beyond conflict, communication is also how your characters establish their relationships, their histories, their status. It ensures your character feels connected to the world of the story and the people who inhabit it with them.
It’s also important to realise that communication isn’t simply language-based (although that makes up a large part of drama.) It relates to body language, gesture, physicality and expression. Two actors can express complex emotions with the simplest of actions on stage or on screen, and say more in silence than others do with five Shakespearean acts.
Case Study: Big Night (1996)
As an example, clock this beautiful, wordless piece of acting by Tony Shaloub and Stanley Tucci from the film Big Night. This is the final scene of the film; the previous night was a disaster and led to these two brothers rolling around and fighting on the beach by their doomed restaurant.
For three-and-a-half minutes, Tony Shaloub is not even present in the scene. The only clue a third character will enter is that one third of the frittata remains in the pan. But the moment he walks in, you can sense the tension between him and his brother. The tiniest nod of his head, the way he chooses to look away as Tucci stands to serve him breakfast.
It is not until the final few seconds of the entire film that their relationship is truly solidified. Their hands rise to embrace one another’s shoulders in a sign of love and mutual apology. The future is uncertain for them both, but they have each other.
Care to try ruining this scene? Add a line of dialogue any-damn-where.
“Who are you speaking to?”
If you want to know how to communicate as an actor, this is the first question to ask yourself. In my work as a coach for StageMilk’s Scene Club (where we cover the fundamentals like communication every month), it’s often the first question I write in my notes to send as feedback to our members.
Who is the character you’re in the scene with? Who are they to you? What is their story, and how are you connected? How do they seem? How do you feel about them? Is there any cause you should be worried about them/happy for them/scared of them? It’s sobering to hear how many actors answer this question with the scene partner’s name, and nothing else. This is where the magic happens!
Think about the person you’re speaking to and interrogate how you might talk to them. If they’re a best friend, you’re going to tell them about a drunken one-night stand very differently to how you might convey the same information to a priest. You might not feel nervous recapping your weekend to your favourite auntie; this might be a different scenario if the person asking is a homicide detective.
“What do you want from them?”
When you’ve established your scene partner, the relationship and how you might relate to them, the next step is to determine your objective. All acting, all drama relates back to this notion: wanting something in a scene and then trying everything you’ve got within you to achieve it. And your objective must always involve your scene partner, because they’re the prime obstacle in the way.
In short: your objective speaks to the reason the scene exists, and why you’re talking to your scene partner. If you put two characters in a room who hate each other with a fiery passion, eventually you (and the audience) will ask: “Why doesn’t one of them just leave, or throw the other one out the window?!” As an actor, you have to discover what is so important about these two characters communicating. They may loathe each other … but they still have to speak in order to pursue their objective and achieve their goal.
If objectives cover what you want, actions (sometimes called tactics) are how you get them. They’re the intention behind each line, each phrase, that helps you to achieve your objective. All communication is about playing actions: trying little things to get what you want. You want to borrow $500 from a friend? “Flatter” them. Did it work? Maybe “bargaining” will do the trick. Still having no luck? Well, time it’s to pull that concealed pistol and “threaten.”
Actions aid your communication as an actor because they force you to impinge upon your scene partner: you must have an effect on the person you’re speaking to. And as actions can only happen in relation to the scene and the shape it takes on the page (see script analysis), playing them forces your performance to be dynamic and unlock the full potential of the writer’s words.
“But actions aren’t spontaneous!”
Some actors think that plotting actions results in predictable, boring choices. How can you possibly make the scene feel alive and spontaneous if you’ve planned it out beforehand? The same way you can you keep a script spontaneous when you learn your lines: you act. Actions aren’t for the benefit of the character, they’re for the benefit of you, the actor, as you navigate the scene. And if a pre-planned action doesn’t fit with the work another actor does in the piece? Well, that’s truer to life than you might think. How many times have you planned or practiced a conversation only for it to go horribly not-to-plan?
As an extension to actions: communicate as an actor by ‘checking in’. This technique has you observe how your scene partner reacts to any of your lines, gestures or actions played. In short: how are they taking this? How are they feeling? Do they look like they’re about to speak, or cry, or launch across the table and start strangling you?
Checking in has you react to the reactions of the person opposite. If a particular action is effective, it might be an indication that you can push that particular tactic: move from “plead” up to “beg”. If it’s less effective, and you get a reaction that is unexpected or undesirable, it’s time for a shift in your tactics: move from “beg” to “flatter”.
Don’t Forget Subtext
Subtext is of the utmost importance in a nuanced, compelling, dramatic scene: so much so that we’ve dedicated an entire article to subtext in acting. When looking for strategies to better communicate as an actor, always think about what is being left unsaid.
It might be a comfortable silence between two great friends—united by a communicative shorthand that eliminates the need for excessive chatter. Perhaps the subtext points to an ugly truth that nobody in the room wants to admit. Subtext also relates back to the notion of the objective that gives drama its sense of tension and drive. The dialogue might be totally innocent, or even bland … but the subtext hints and the deep wants of the character: what’s really going on.
Communicating in a Monologue
The importance of communication as an actor is never more apparent than when you perform a monologue. This is because the responsibility falls to you alone to make the connection with your scene partner. You can’t rely on the back-and-forth of dialogue to mask poor communication: it all has to be there.
As a provocation: ask yourself why the piece of material you’re working in is a monologue. Why is your scene partner silent? What’s shut them up, and how are they taking the words you’re saying (a great opportunity to check in?) If you can answer these questions, keep them in your mind when you prepare/analyse/perform a monologue, then you can bet you’re communicating.
“What about a soliloquy?”
While a soliloquy is different to a monologue, the principles of communication are the same. While a soliloquy, by definition, distinguishes itself by representing the inner thoughts (or monologue, if you will) of a character, they’re still being spoken out loud for a particular reason. To whom are they being spoken to? And why?
One of the main reasons learning to communicate as an actor can be difficult is that it’s often hard for us as people—let alone performers. We don’t always listen when we talk to somebody. We’re not always receptive to how our words are being received. Sometimes, things are lost in subtext or poor word choice that creates unnecessary drama.
When you’re working on your acting, keep yourself open to these flaws. Because often it’s these parts of speech, moments of communication between people, that create the most human performances. When you think about it: if all characters were perfect communicators, we’d not have half the complications and plots in all of drama!
So when you’re acting, do your best to listen and be heard. Find what you want and fight for it, and know the person opposite you is the one in the way. Simple as that.