Learn to Listen Well! (1932)

Learn to Listen Well!

Advises Leslie Howard

Acting, George Arliss once remarked, is not so much being natural as it is being unnatural without getting caught at it. The physical limitations of the theatre and the screen often force the actor to do things which would seem most unnatural in real life, but which are necessary to a successful performance on the stage or before a camera. The art of acting, therefore, consists more than a little of knowing how to make these necessarily unnatural acts seem natural.
On the stage, for instance, one must–even in the most intimate scenes–project one’s voice so that the occupants of the farthest seats in the auditorium can understand what is being said; in a silent film, one must project his pantomime so that it will take the place of the words which cannot be uttered. In talking pictures, on the other hand, between the all-seeing eye of the camera, and the sensitive ear of the microphone, the actor need project neither his voice nor his action. Rather, in fact, he is called upon to restrain them to a degree which, viewed in the light of stage, or silent-film technique, seems unnatural in its very lack of unnaturalness. For this reason, we find that often the best talking-picture performances are those which, in the actual making, seem amateurish in their lack of the theatrical mannerisms to which we of the legitimate theatre are accustomed.
But the amateur cinema player, I realize, is hardly interested in the technique of stage or sound-film acting, for the apparatus with which he works is not yet adapted to the making of sound films. Therefore any discussion of screen acting for the amateur must necessarily be predicated upon the technique of the silent cinema.
The basis of all acting is summed up in “Hamlet’s” speech to the players, whom he tells to “Suit the action to the word and the word to the action.” In the theatre or in a talking film, this is easy; but in a silent film one must remember that if he follows this precept to the letter, much of his action is likely to be cut out to give place to the printed title that carries his words to the audience. Therefore he must be a trifle unnatural, and perform his illustrative pantomime either a bit before or a bit after he speaks his title; as a rule, the latter is preferable. One must, however, bear in mind that te printed title is going to be inserted, and that it will in large measure speak for him: therefore, a minimum of pantomime is desirable. The greatest artist of the silent screen–men like Emil Jennings and Lon Chaney–were those who knew their medium so perfectly that they were able to convey the maximum of thought with the minimum of physical effort.
Screen acting is, above all, mental acting. On the stage one can rely to a surprising degree upon vocal inflection: but on the screen–even in a talking picture–the player must make his face and especially his eyes the chief medium of expression. This does not by any means mean that screen acting must be, as the saying is, “mugging.” If you will study the work of the outstanding player of the screen–artists like Chaplin, Jennings, Lillian Gish, Charles Laughton, Janet Gaynor, Mary Pickford, Marie Dressler, or a dozen others one could easily name–you will find that while they make the face and eyes the principal media for their dramatic expression, they do so with marked restraint. Theirs is not so much facial expression as mental expression. Their acting is done primarily with the brain: first of all, they know the inner meanings of their roles. Then they let their actions and expressions reflect that clean-cut mental concept of the characterization. Lastly, their knowledge of the mechanics of acting enables them to preserve the clear physical reflection of their mental characterization, with every superfluous physical movement eliminated.
A clear understanding of the part is indispensable to a good characterization; but in order to preserve this mental picture undistorted, one must have an equally clear understanding of the mechanical aspects of acting. We admire the playing of a great musician like Paderewski or Kreisler, but we would not do so if they had not spent years of arduous work in mastering the mechanics of their art. Acting involves quite as much mechanics, and requires a complete mastering as does music. Incorrect timing or faulty tempo can ruin the playing of a part as completely as they would the playing of a sonata.
Perhaps the most important single phase of acting is listening. There is a great art to listening. The American actor, Joe Jefferson, once described acting by saying, “When I talk, YOU listen–and when you talk, I listen.” To the actor, there are volumes of wisdom packed into that sentence; the difference, in fact, between the trained actor and the amateur. The professional player is always a good listener; the amateur rarely is. The most important part of an actor’s work does not always come during his own speeches: it is just as important that he continue playing his part while somebody else is speaking. He may have heard the other player’s speech a hundred times in rehearsal, and know it word for word–but unless the stays in character, and listens to that speech as attentively as though he were hearing the words for the first time, he will kill both his own work and that of his fellow-player. Listening may well be compared to fencing. The slow-motion camera shows that there are three distinct motions to a thrust with the sword: first, the sword is pointed; second, the arm extended; third, the lunge itself. These three phases actually blend smoothly into each other, and occur so quickly that to the eye they appear like a single movement–but each move must in itself be complete and perfectly executed. It is the same in acting: first, one hears what the other player is saying; second, he considers it; third, he delivers his reply. If the action is to be natural, it must–no matter how quickly it is performed–include these three phases of hearing, reaction and action.
The amateur actor is prone to forget all this, and to consider acting as merely a matter of delivering his own speeches and pantomime effectively. He is in character as long as he is actually speaking or doing something: but as soon as the action shifts to someone else, he slips out of the character and becomes merely a man waiting to begin acting. Such playing will spoil the finest scene ever written–no matter who the other players may be. And if good listening is important on the stage or the audible cinema, it is vital in the silent film, where the audience’s attention is concentrated upon the action rather than upon spoken words. The next time you go to the theatre or to the cinema, study the way the players listen to each other. The greatest actors are invariably fine listeners.
There is a subtle distinction, of course, between listening well and listening so exaggerated that one interferes with the work of the other player. It is possible to listen so demonstratively that one attracts the attention of the audience from the speaker, and causes them to miss some important words or actions. This is “bad theatre”–and bad manners as well. Yet I doubt if the average amateur is in any great danger of falling into this pitfall. Far better, at any rate, for the amateur to listen too well than not well enough!
Another important factor is timing. A good actor is able to tell as much by his pauses–or timing–as he does by his actual words and acts. The amateur actor all too often merely rushes through his lines, oblivious of the eloquent pauses that a professional would employ. It is not always what you say so much as how you say it.
Still another important consideration is to make the audience do part of the work. No audience that either in the professional or the amateur is likely to face has so low an intelligence quotient that it must be shown everything. Even children appreciate appeals to the imagination. The actor’s problem, however, is to differentiate between legitimately appealing to the imagination and underplaying his part; sometimes this distinction is very finely drawn. In one situation, turning one’s back upon the audience may be the crowning artistic touch; in another, a consummate blunder. To the amateur, therefore, I would say, when in doubt–overact. The amateur does not have the years of experience with audience that the professional can call upon for guidance. The amateur, once he has mastered the physical requirements of his role, and understood the mental ones, had best cast aside all inhibitions and “let himself go” completely. There is little danger that he will let himself go so completely that he will over-play his part.
Tempo is a rather intricate matter, but one which the actor must master. If you will study performances of the same play by two different companies–one professional and the other amateur–you will find that one of the most essential differences in the two performances is that of tempo. The professional eliminates waste movement, and keeps the play moving along quickly and consistently; the amateur is likely to do a lot of unnecessary work, which slows down the tempo, and makes it jerky. The professional tempo is almost invariably faster than that of the amateur.
Moreover, different types of drama require different tempos. So do different characterizations. Boris Karloff’s characterization of the Monster in “Frankenstein,” for instance, was played at a very deliberate tempo; while his portrayal of the Racketeer in “Night World” was paced very much faster. Lee Tracy’s recent portrayals, of newspaper reporters–especially in “Blessed Event”–are noteworthy examples of ultra-rapid tempo.
Changes of tempo are often valuable in highlighting certain dramatic moments in a characterization. Charles Laughton’s interesting character-study in “Devil and the Deep,” for example, was played chiefly at a fairly deliberate pace, but the dramatic climaxed were highlighted by abrupt outbursts at a decidedly accelerated tempo.
The actor’s greatest aids are good direction and thorough rehearsal. Very few actors are able to direct themselves; the best guarantee of success is for the actor to place himself in the hands of a capable director–and then work willingly with him. Such delicate matters as tempo, timing and grouping demand the detached perspective of someone who is able to see the action as a whole rather than as an individual performance.
Rehearsals should be considered not as something to be merely walked through anyway, but as a laboratory where one can analyze and refine his performance until everything superfluous is eliminated, and all that is essential brought out in its perfect proportions.
Above all, remember “Hamlet’s” advice: “Suit the action to the word and the word to the action . . . . Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, but use all gently; for in the very whirlwind of passion you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.”

Leslie Howard and Ann Harding, both amateur cinematographers, study up a bit on cameras

(American Cinematographer, December 1932)