“Music is the space between the notes”
Translated for theatre: “Acting is what you do when you’re not speaking.”
One of the most common issues I see (and easiest things to improve) with school theatre productions is the absence of silence (a.k.a. the lowly pause).
I’m not talking about awkward pauses where the actor struggles with a line or is slow to pick up a cue. I’m talking about purposeful pauses.
Pauses in the theatre, similar to negative space in graphic design, are vital to telling the story of the play. They give the character time to process information. They give the audience time to process information. They can create tension and they can release tension.
Young actors tend to fear the pause and the silence that comes with it. They’re bursting with energy and want everything to flow out as quickly as possible.They’ve been told to pick up their cues and mistake that direction for a call to speed everything up.
Here’s a very simple exercise to try in rehearsal.
- Read through a scene from the play, books in hand, even if the actors are off-book.
- Every time you reach a comma, pause for two full seconds. Every time you reach a period, pause for five.
- As you’re reading, which pauses feel natural? Which don’t?
- After reading the scene like this, have each actor choose the one line (or sentence or sentence fragment) that is the most important to their character in the scene.
- Perform the scene on its feet. This time focus on the “most important” line you chose above. Take the full comma and period pauses from the reading during those lines.
Postscript: The opposite is true in professional theatre. Professional actors have no problem taking pauses. Running times will often get progressively longer and longer. You’ll hear from your friendly neighbourhood stage manager if this is the case. I speak from experience