Actors Have a Tell
What is it? How do you spot it? And what do you do once you do?
For this production I have the distinct challenge and pleasure of working with an all new cast; I’ve never directed any of my actors before. This means, of course, that I have “learn” them, a process that is more important than communicating my vision of the play.
A director’s vision can be communicated quickly when there are no obstacles. It can also die on the vine if I don’t understand how to express myself so I'm understood, and identify and address habits that may blur the clarity of each moment on stage. “Habits” can blur that vision by mixing an actor’s mannerisms into a character’s.
Every actor develops habits. They're like a “tell” in poker because they communicate something other than what we want. Sometimes they are based on strengths— things that work well on stage; at other times they are attempts to cover up weaknesses. Habits are not inherently good or bad: sometimes the ‘strengths’ are wrong for the character; sometimes the ‘cover’ works well. The question is always whether they’re right for the character and provide clarity to the moment.
Some familiar actor-habits:
- · Slapping your hand against your thigh as you speak for emphasis
- · Standing with your weight on one foot
- · Soft vocality (swallowed words) at the beginning of lines… or the end
- · Disconnecting or moving away for no reason after a confrontation
- · Acting before the line rather than through it
- · Speaking too quickly… or to s l o w l y….
- · Trapping your breath in the upper chest
Sometimes these “tells” are the actor’s personal habits, but more often I find that they appear only when the actor is on stage.
Identifying actor-habits gets easier the longer you work in theatre, especially as a director (when you’re responsible for judging and crafting a performance and you observe them through all the stages of rehearsal). But the main way to spot tells is by simply watching and listening. Unfortunately, we don’t have the phrase "active watching" in our idiom. Listening embodies the idea of pro-action, which I like. Tells are often the most pronounced at the beginning of the rehearsal process, when the actor is getting accustomed to the role, but they can come back later if they fall into old habits. This is most painful when the habits re-surface after the rehearsal period, while the show is in production. Which is why it's important to identify and address them early in rehearsal so the actor is a making conscious choice to do something else. Spend the first few days of rehearsal watching actively, rather than being focused on shaping their work.
What do you do when you spot a tell? Every habit and every actor is different, so there’s no blanket solution. Tactfully pointing out the habit to your actor is often sufficient. Some habits are harder to change, though, and require supplanting the behavior with another. If it’s a physical habit, explore the way the character moves through the world, their gestures, and where emotions “live” in their body. If it’s a vocal habit, play with other ones—musicality, elegance, sharpness. Focus on the vocal creation of character.