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  • Sonya Cooke

CONTACT: THE FIRST PILLAR


My students' constant requests to read more about The Seven Pillars of Acting Technique, is now answered! Over the next several weeks, I will be writing about each Pillar in the Seven Pillar system. These are longer than normal, so please take breaks, make some tea, and enjoy...Let's start from the very beginning...

Contact is the first tenet of acting, as essential as breathing out and breathing in. Contact is the actor's relationship to his partner and to himself, as well as his awareness of his partner’s and his own thoughts and feelings. The line of connection between yourself and your partner is more important than any line of text you will ever utter. Your partner is your most important circumstance. In life, the person you are speaking to often determines your behavior, thoughts and feelings. When with your mother, you have a unique set of ways to communicate, but, when with a client, a completely different side of you may come out. You are likely to react to the angry tone of a boyfriend or girlfriend no matter where you are or what other circumstances may be. So, if acting is “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances,” then the actor better be aware of his partner! If an actor cannot observe and identify the thoughts and feelings both he and his partner are experiencing, how can he ever hope to live truthfully under the circumstances?

Contact is a powerful Pillar, constituting at least 75% of all acting in my estimation. Therefore, if you can be in contact with your partner, you are well on your way to some authentic work. Let’s discuss the building blocks and major concepts for Contact. To begin with, Contact hinges on the crucial skill of Listening.

Contact is LISTENING

Listening, in acting terms, is far more than an auditory function; it encompasses all the ways we gather intra-personal information, primarily visual, from nonverbal cues, facial expressions, to mild-form telepathy! We see more than we give ourselves credit. For example, you can tell if someone doubts what you are saying or if he is in agreement. By viewing minute, muscular shifts in the face, eyes and body, as well as hearing vocal tone, the actor can decipher a tremendous amount of information. Unfortunately, we are not socially conditioned or allowed to look so closely, much less to draw conclusions from it! In order to act, this taboo must be broken. An actor must be willing to really see and really be seen by another. By strengthening Listening skills, the actor is able to note the nuances and changes that occur within his partner, and these changes may be physical, cognitive, emotional, or psychological. However, this intake of information is not static; it shifts at a rapid and spontaneous pace. Therefore, the next tenant of Contact pertains to listening Moment-to-Moment.

Contact is MOMENT-TO-MOMENT

The present moment is frustratingly fleeting. The instant you think you have it, it has passed. And yet, the art of acting depends on the presence of the actor in the present moment. How does one “be in the moment?” a common question for artists and spiritually-minded individuals. What does “being in the moment” even mean?

Not Being in the Moment: the state of tuning out, getting lost in thought, dwelling on an emotion, or fixating on the past or the future. Not Being in the Moment most definitely correlates with BEING IN YOUR IPHONE.

Being in the Moment: a state of presence, awareness and openness to the moment that is happening right now. It does not mean one is without a task. On the contrary, it often is most accessible when one is fully enrapt in an activity, like a sport or conversation. Activities engage the body, mind and spirit, allowing all three to participate in the moment that is.

Moment-to-moment listening is a like a muscle that must be conditioned; ignore it and it lays dormant. In order to exercise this skill, the actor must throw all his attention on his partner and notice the many ways he or she shifts in physicality, thought, and emotion, while simultaneously casting off any previous present moments! A common mantra for this is “Not now, NOW…not now, NOW.” Like a wave hitting a beach, as soon as a moment occurs it has already past. Therefore, another mantra for this is “Let Go.” Attentive Listening in combination with the willingness to Let Go is what cultivates a state of living moment-to-moment. After that, Contact is about how the actor interprets what he “hears.”

Contact is PERSONAL

In life, we are conditioned (and rightfully so) to not take things personally. When someone is rude or unpleasant or an opportunity passes you by, the common coaching is to not “take it personally,” as a defense mechanism. I fully support this philosophy in life; however, it is deathly to an actor. An actor must take everything personally. He must open his heart and let himself be affected by another person. Acting is an extremely vulnerable art form, so, like it or not, the actor must be willing to lay down his armor and feel his own pains and joys. This is a process that often takes years to unravel, as the many ways we shield ourselves is complex. But, by simply reminding yourself to “take it personally,” you will begin to chip away at the well-laid brick wall you made to defend yourself from feeling. Ask yourself, in response to what your partner has just said or done, “What do I really think about that? What does that make me feel? How does that affect me?” Posing these questions is a great way to begin to open your heart. Finally, the actor must respond truthfully.

Contact is RESPONDING

Like breathing, contact requires a give and take, the receiving of your partner’s truthful impulse and the sending out of your own truthful impulse. Easier said than done, given we are socialized to veil our truthful responses. But, what complicates this otherwise simple equation is the introduction of text. Nothing thwarts a truthful impulse better than a script. Therefore, there needs to be a time and place for the actor to express his own thoughts and feelings in response to his partner, in order to know what his truthful impulse is.

No technique has addressed this necessary component better than Sanford Meisner’s Repetition exercises, which facilitate a back and forth exchange between two partners, in order to cultivate truthful, personal impulses and the moment-to-moment listening we discussed above. To respond truthfully means to let go of all preconceptions of what is right to say, or what one is expected to say, and to just communicate what you think and feel. Repetition is not a conversation; it is a highly structured game that permits unabashed honesty, spontaneity and openness. Responding also transcends words; you can respond with your toes. To Respond is merely to expel one’s truthful impulse on voice, in body, and/or with words. There is expressive potential in each of these. Actors are often afraid of being too big or over-playing a moment, but truth is undefined by size; truth is truth. Whatever the actor’s impulse is, it is valid.

The hurdle that follows is how to apply this impulse to the line that’s on the page, and there are two primary ways to negotiate this.

1) Instead of acting the tone and attitude that the line appears to suggest, completely cast that off and say/do the line through whatever impulse you truthfully have. There are a million ways to say “Yes,” “No,” “I love you,” and “Hello.” Don’t feel burdened or contained with your assumption of how a line should be played; instead, let your impulse influence the line.

2) Speak your own truthful response to whatever your partner says or does to you, and then follow it up with the scripted line, so that you can begin to sift out the difference between your truthful impulses and your character’s. The question will then be, “What circumstances must my character be dealing with that he has this particular impulse? And, how can I live within those circumstances so that I may share that impulse with him?” A tricky sequence of questions, for sure, but they carve a path to transformation into a role, where you are not masked in a character, but made one with him.

Ultimately, Contact helps the actor to develop his Truth Barometer. To put it plainly, the Truth Barometer, which extends from the solar plexus to the heart, indicates when the actor BSing or not. It is the gauge an actor uses to tell him when he is being truthful or when he is relying on gimmicks and anticipated emotions. Like a compass for a traveler, the Truth Barometer helps the actor navigate the complicated task of taking on a character’s circumstances and then getting up and performing them in front of a camera or strangers! All the work we do, all the crafting, is done so that we experience life authentically. To act is to LIVE truthfully; thus, this tool is so crucial for the actor to develop, and nothing does so better than our first Pillar of Contact. Simply listen and respond; that is all there is to it. From this basic rule, the actor may then add on the other creative elements. The Truth Barometer never steers the actor off-course, but, like a lighthouse, it draws him toward his innate sense of truth and authenticity.

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