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The Silent Treatment

By • Oct 6th, 2010 • Category: An Actor's Advice

I just concluded a play this week. The play was a series of skits, and in one particular skit, most of the action was described by a narrator. It was my job to convey what he was saying, without the benefit of my own lines. It was a very short and silly piece, but valuable nonetheless for the chance it gave me to hone in on my non-verbal acting skills. Facial expressions. Body language. Very light use of vocalizations that were not actual words. The entire experience reminded me of an acting exercise I did once or twice back in college.

The scene partners were assigned the task of performing part of their weekly scene, without using any of the lines. The emotions, plot developments and inner monologue were to all be expressed in some fashion other than words. (On occasion, we were allowed to repeat one relevant word over and over, pursuent to the same end.) The obvious effect is that each actor had to pay extra attention to all aspects of a performance, other than speaking. And while the dialogue was present again in the final presentation of the scene, so were the deeper aspects of the character presentation that each of us learned during this silent technique. The irony of it all being that the quality of our line delivery often improved due to our having done the scene without the lines.

Any given director may not dedicate an entire rehearsal to such an exercise. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take a lesson from the basic concept. This can occur in two ways.

To begin with, you can always try running lines at home in this fashion. Look in a mirror and try to be conscious of the things you could make your body and face do which would convey the information in each line as you think of it. (Without saying it.) If you have a cast mate that lives nearby you could both work on this together. It is even more potent when you are expressing things in this manner to someone else instead of a mirror.

Secondly, while on stage you can remain aware of how you are conveying information silently, even when you do not have any assigned lines. This in fact is what every actor should be doing when someone else on stage is speaking; they should be ever aware of how subtle shifts of weight, the raising of an eyebrow, or the quickening of breath during someone else’s lines can portray what the character is feeling. Planning. Loving, etc. Even when your mouth is not moving, your character is always saying something.

You may find yourself getting a bit self conscious when you first try this. The result may be movements that are slightly more exaggerated than the one you want to use during the actual performance. But that’s okay. It is much easier to gradually tone something down when the time comes, then to make it bigger later in the process.

Make use of this and you will find it is one of the few times others actually get something from being given “the silent treatment.”

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is a Maryland native and has been acting for nine years, having studied it at Marietta College in Ohio. He has been schooled in Shakespeare, improvisation, public speaking and voice articulation throughout his career. His credits to date include over 30 plays and readings as well as 2 films. You can also read his blogs offbook.blogspot.com (for theatre related thoughts) and tooxyz.blogspot.com (for thoughts on personal success from an outcast). Follow him on Twitter @TyUnglebower.

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