I watched a scene in a tv show recently between two characters. Character A was talking, apologizing. Character B was nodding his head. And crossing his legs. And squinting. And bringing his hand to his face. And dropping them into his lap. In other words, Character B was reacting to what Character A was saying. Except that he wasn’t just reacting he was REACTING. He was screaming with his whole body “I’M HEARING WHAT YOU ARE SAYING. WATCH ME. I’M TELLING YOU, THROUGH VARIOUS TICS AND HAND GESTURES.” It’s a bit much. It’s reacting because the actor thinks the visual movement is what signals reaction rather than what’s going on inside that person. And further, I completely lost whatever it was that Character A was saying. I became caught up in the constant movement of Character B.
It is often said that acting is reacting. And there is truth in that – it’s the notion that if you, the actor, listens to what’s being said to you as if it here the first time, you then respond, react, with instinct. And if you react with instinct it comes across as natural, even though it’s as artificial as can be. It’s not necessarily about dancing a jig, it’s about instinct. Sometimes when you hear something, it’s your instinct to inhale sharply. Sometimes you sit down slowly, or leap to your feet. To react on stage is to respond in a manner that doesn’t betray you’ve heard the lines a million times before.
In the particular scene I described above, the actor did not respond with instinct. He was merely trying to show reaction, “Here I am reacting.” And I didn’t buy a second of it. I felt I was watching a scene between actors, not watching a tense conversation between two former friends.
So when you’re in a scene, focus on reacting as if you are hearing the information for the first time. Physicalize your listening but never throw your arms around just because you think reaction has to be visually big on stage. Reaction doesn’t have to be big. It has to be instinctual.