Listen Up

If I ever write a book about theatre it will be about listening. If you have spent any time around actors or theatre people, or even watched enough insider films or TV shows, you have probably come across the phrase “talking and listening.” “ Just talk and listen.” This is a sort of short hand, kind of like “keep it simple, stupid.” “Just say the words, and listen to your partner.”

This shorthand is useful, and ultimately some of the most powerful acting you will ever see has this idea at its core. But I actually think there is a lot more to be gleaned from this simple statement. And in fact, it is the listening part that we should dig a little deeper into.

I certainly don’t want to take any importance away from the talking part. I have heard it said that a life in the theatre is “talking loudly at night.” And talking loudly at night in front of a group of people is really not an easy thing. And within the theatre there are so many different types of talking…making Shakespeare sound alive and beautiful and moving is a very different thing than making Mamet pop, or Ken Ludwig bounce, or Will Eno simmer to life. All the playwrights and all the styles and all the periods take very different skills and a good deal of that is in the talking. The way that it sounds is all-important.

But there is something very concrete about the speaking. Most times, the lines are already there, written for you, so you know exactly what you are saying. You know where and when the play takes place, so you know how the character has to sound based on those facts. In the theatre, you have to be heard, and there are whole systems and methods about how to produce the sound loudly and healthily. And honestly, we live in a loud and talky time. Sometimes it seems to me that it is more important that you have something, anything to say, than to actually take the time to figure out the best and most appropriate thing to say. What did Abe Lincoln say?  “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” Seems like we can use a little bit of this sage advice these days. And I don’t just mean in society at large, I mean in the collaborative art of theatre.

Listen. Sit back and listen. If you have any interest in this craft, this crazy business, hone that skill. I can’t stress it enough. And really, this goes for any discipline in the theatre. Anytime that you get a group of people together and are collaborating towards a common goal, the most important skill for everyone in the room is to be a good and active listener. Obviously there are skills that you have brought to the table to be in that room in the first place. Great writing, or acting, or directing, or designing, or whatever. You better be great at what you do to get in those rooms. But once you are there, turn those ears on (and honestly, one of the best ways I know to get better at your chosen field: LISTEN).

Why listen? As a collaborator, it is incumbent on me to know exactly what is being asked of me, what part I am playing in the larger project. It is also terribly important that I know what others’ parts are within that whole as well. And the harder you listen (and I don’t think this is only with your ears, but I will get to that a little later), the harder you are trying to hear exactly what is happening around you, the more you will be able to put your own ego and fear to the side. If you are really trying to understand someone, really trying to hear with clarity and efficiency all that is happening around you, you won’t have much time to let your own ego and fear creep into the mix and muddy things up. ‘Cause fear and ego are the soul killers. And if we need anything in this craft to make beautiful art, it is soul.

So what did I mean a little while ago when I said listen with more than your ears. We have so many ways of taking in information. So many senses, way more than 5, by the way. Use all the means at your disposal to “hear” what is happening around you. I guess that is what I mean by “active listening.” Take in all the stimuli you can. Get those antennas up and out. Take in the world around you and you will be a much better collaborator for it.

Cody Nickell in rehearsal of All My Sons

Cody Nickell in rehearsal of All My Sons

All if this is kind of a long lead-in to talk about Arthur Miller. I have the pleasure of working on All My Sons right now at Gulfshore Playhouse, and there is so much to listen to. It is a very wonderful opportunity to use the old “talk and listen.” And the more I listen to this play, to this cast, this artistic team, the more I realize that Arthur Miller must have been one of the better listeners that the American theatre has ever produced. And I mean “listener” in that all-antennas-up-eyes-wide-open-feet-firmly-planted-finger-on-the-pulse kinda way. This was a man who clearly saw the world around him, who clearly heard it, who clearly listened to the way that world made him feel inside and whom clearly had the great gifts needed to offer that world back to an audience.

I feel very lucky to able to listen to that world everyday. I feel blessed to get to hear that with my heart the sad and beautiful story being told. And, yes, I also really like to get to say those words of Mr. Miller’s. I hope you will like listening to them.

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