Theater Info for the Washington DC region

“The rest is silence.”

By • Sep 21st, 2011 • Category: An Actor's Advice

Hamlet’s last line is, “The rest is silence.” He dies at that point, so it is logical to conclude he would remain silent for the rest of the play. The actor playing him at that point, or indeed the actor playing anyone that has died should find little difficulty in motivating silence.

Yet silence, beats, and pauses all tend to give many an actor a small case of the nerves. You wouldn’t think it, but careful observation of both my own occasional inclinations, as well as the habits of other actors, (and not just new ones) have born out my theory that saying nothing on stage creeps out a lot of performers.

There is a pressure to continue making noise of some kind for the audience to consume. Unless the character is moving about in a frantic but wordless fashion trying to accomplish some discernible task on stage, actors fill an almost irresistible urge to start talking as soon as possible once they hit the stage.

Part of this no doubt has to do with the quickening pace of our world and our entertainment in particular these days. Phones, video games, texting all move at lighting pace, and many of our brains have been rewired to seek out and even create instant gratification. Communication every second. A long pause on stage will lose the audience, and perhaps cause some people to lose their train of thought as a performer during the scene.

Another part of it could be that long pauses on stage are often the results of mistakes by the actors, such as a missed entrance or a dropped line. Sometimes actors freeze up in such times and forget to move on, or otherwise don’t know how. Some actors probably fear that if they pause too long on stage, the audience, or even others on the stage, will assume they have made a mistake. So they rush to their next line as soon as they can.

Yet a fully engaged actor need not be afraid of the pause.

I have said many times that the words we speak on stage are just a part of our performance. And while I agree that modern audiences do have a tendency towards expecting constant talk, this can be overcome, as most things in live theatre can be, by maintaining our character in every moment we are on stage. The person you are bringing to life is also performing within their head. Their body gives away much of what they are either thinking, feeling, or at least that they are trying to hide what they are thinking and feeling. If we absorb this understanding into our presentation of a character, we assign meaning, purpose, and performance to even the longest of pauses during a scene.

Use your face, your posture, your movements on the stage to explain to the audience why this pause is taking place. Is your character afraid to speak? Too lazy to say anything? Are they plotting? Speechless with anger? The answer depends as always on the nature of the scene and on how you interpret your character, but one thing that never changes is the need you as an actor have to always portray these things to the audience. You can do it if you know the scene, the character, and if you do not fear the pause.

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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 (for theatre related thoughts) and (for thoughts on personal success from an outcast). Follow him on Twitter @TyUnglebower.

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