The Rhythm of Emotion: Incorporating Music and Movement into Acting Techniques

The Rhythm of Emotion: Incorporating Music and Movement into Acting Techniques

The Power of Stillness in Acting

I remember the first time the power of acting really moved me in ways I never expected. I was a teenager watching Good Will Hunting for the first time, and I witnessed the magnificence of Robin Williams’ acting. There was something about it that was so captivating, something I could never quite put my finger on at the time – something magical. Recently, after deciding to watch the movie again for the millionth time, I think I found the secret: Even during the most intense and emotional scenes, the guy doesn’t move. Almost never. He is still, even when he shouldn’t be. He just sits there in his stillness and yet still manages to pack a punch with every word he says. You lean in and listen as if he were right there next to you.

The intentional use of stillness in acting can be a powerful and expressive tool to convey emotions, thoughts, tension, and subtext. It involves a deliberate choice by the actor to momentarily pause or limit movement in order to emphasize a specific moment, emotion, thought, or narrative element within a performance. Sometimes it feels counterintuitive to deploy stillness; however, proper usage of this technique is undeniably powerful. Whether you are an acting veteran or a fresh-eyed beginner, learning the art of stillness can take your craft to new heights and impress those around you whilst doing as little as humanly possible.

In the realm of acting, where movement, emotion, and expression often take center stage, the concept of stillness might seem counterintuitive. Yet, ever since I realized the potential of using stillness as a tool, I have been obsessed. I’ve rewatched some of my favorite shows, monologues, and scenes, and they all have an essence of this stillness. The actor barely moves, and yet I can’t look away. I can’t focus on anything else, and then when they do move, there’s such power in it.

Mastering the Art of Stillness

So, what does stillness mean for an actor in technical terms? After talking to different actors, directors, and coaches, the summary I give for stillness in acting is this: It is a dynamic and purposeful technique that draws the audience’s attention to the internal world of the character, allowing for a deeper understanding of their thoughts and emotions. Stillness in acting can be likened to a pause in a musical composition – it’s a moment of suspension that adds weight and significance to the surrounding actions and dialogue.

Just as a well-placed pause in a conversation can convey meaning and anticipation, the strategic use of stillness in acting allows us, as actors, to communicate complex emotions and thoughts without uttering a word. In these moments, the audience is compelled to fill in the gaps with their own interpretations, and this, in turn, fosters a deeper engagement with the narrative.

So, how do us actors achieve such a state? For an acting tool that requires you to do less, it sure does require much. Here are eight actionable steps you can take to achieve stillness when you act:

  1. Immerse Yourself in the Character: Before you can effectively use stillness to convey emotions, internalise the character’s emotional landscape. Take the time to understand what they want, what drives them, what holds them back, and why they do the things they do. By establishing a strong emotional connection with the character, you can authentically channel their emotions through stillness.

  2. Identify the Opportunities: Stillness should never be mistaken for inaction. It’s a conscious, active choice made to emphasize a moment, an emotion, or a thought. Consider the context of the scene and identify the points where stillness could serve to enhance the narrative. Is it a moment of tension before a revelation? Is it a reflective pause after a moment of realization? Maybe it’s your character putting up a barrier while they internalise bad thoughts. By recognizing these opportunities, you can utilise stillness to punctuate the scene effectively.

  3. Breathe with Intent: Breath is a potent tool that can help maintain focus and authenticity during moments of stillness. Pay attention to your breath as you hold a pose or maintain eye contact. Allow your breath to mirror the character’s emotional state. Is it shallow and rapid due to anxiety? Perhaps it’s slow and controlled in a moment of calm. Or is it all over the place because the character’s feelings are in disarray? By syncing your breath with the character’s emotions, you enhance the stillness with a subtle yet powerful layer of realism.

  4. Move with Purpose: The same goes for your physical movements. Stillness is not just doing nothing with your body, but rather being intentional with your movements. Move or don’t move as your character would in the scene and space. Stillness can communicate subtext and intention more effectively than spoken words, so consider what lies beneath the surface of the dialogue. What are the unspoken thoughts and desires of the character? Use stillness to emphasize these hidden layers.

  5. Experiment with Timing and Rhythm: Like a well-composed piece of music, acting requires a sense of timing and rhythm. For me, I see stillness and acting in general as jazz, where stillness can play a crucial role in the pacing of a performance. Experiment with different durations of stillness to create tension and rhythm – a brief pause might build anticipation, while an extended moment of stillness could signify introspection or revelation. Varying the timing of stillness keeps the audience engaged and allows you to control the emotional arc of the scene and character.

  6. Silence as Conversation: Stillness is not limited to solo moments. It can also be a potent tool in scenes involving dialogue or interaction with two or more characters. Practice active listening and reacting whilst keeping still. By immersing yourself in the other actors’ words and responding through thoughtful stillness, you create an intense exchange of emotions and unspoken communication. Your stillness becomes a mirror for the emotions being expressed, emphasizing the connection between characters. It is as if the stillness itself becomes a conversation all on its own.

  7. Subtle Gestures and Movements: Stillness doesn’t necessarily mean complete immobility. Consider incorporating subtle physical movements and gestures to enhance the stillness. These actions should be deliberate and purposeful, contributing to the character’s emotional state, attitude, or the scene’s dynamics. A slight shift in weight, a gentle touch, or a carefully timed gesture can amplify the emotional impact of a scene.

  8. Practice, Experiment, and Find Your Range: Just like any skill that will level up your acting game, stillness may take some time to perfect. Even more so if you’re a crazy extrovert like me and have a natural inclination to give or express an action for every feeling, word, and thought that you have. Mastering the art of stillness requires practice and experimentation. So, rehearse your scenes with various levels of stillness and explore how each choice influences the scene’s dynamics. See how it feels using next to no stillness first, then experiment with different postures, facial expressions, and breathing patterns to find the most compelling and authentic approach for each moment.

Stillness is a powerful technique that can take your acting to new heights, but it’s not about freezing because you forgot your lines, froze due to stage fright, or felt like taking a break on stage or screen. Stillness is about making a deliberate and impactful choice that enhances the emotional depth of a performance. When we, as actors, are still and present, we let the scene unfold and become what it is naturally. If a scene is supposed to be tense, we don’t need to act tense; we just have to be. If the scene is funny, we don’t have to be funny; we just have to follow the beats.

It’s a powerful technique, but you don’t have to use it all the time. How much stillness you incorporate will depend on the character, scene, and story you are telling. Some characters can suffer from too little movement, where others will thrive. It is human to express yourself physically, but it is also human to hold in and internalize your feelings too. This is why I believe us humans find stillness on stage and screen captivating – it is the closest we would get to real life. Stillness often lies in the realm of realism, therefore it is subconsciously something us humans recognize and can relate to.

So, use the tool well, experiment, and witness the difference stillness can make to your performances. Remember, your success as an actor is more than just yours – it’s a reflection of the hard work, dedication, and passion you put into your craft. And who knows, maybe one day, you’ll have the power to move someone the way Robin Williams moved me all those years ago.

The Musical Theater Center is a place where you can hone your skills and bring your passion for the stage to life. Whether you’re a seasoned performer or just starting your journey, we have the resources, the expertise, and the support to help you unlock your full potential. So, why not take that first step and join us on this incredible adventure?

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