March 30, 2020

STAY TUNED: On Listening

 Q: After watching many episodes of Inside the Actors Studio, there is one question I’ve noticed James Lipton almost always asks: ‘How important is listening?’ The reply that comes to mind is when Meryl Streep said, ‘It’s everything.’ And in every episode I’ve seen thus far, all have agreed, but not much elaboration comes after that. So- what is meant by listening? What is good listening as opposed to when it’s not so great? Is it a skill I can work on and if so, what are some of the ways I can do that? 

Listening is an important principle of great acting. I was at the interview Lipton did with Streep at the New School, and her ‘listening is everything’ was indeed a provocative statement. 

Actors come into acting because they have a special receptivity and intuitively recognize that sensitivity as an ability. This ability leads a person to a capacity for great empathy. When acting is done well, the actor holds a mirror up to nature. This is a gift to society, when people can see themselves and reflect upon their lives through art. This is why it is so important that all genders and races be reflected on screen equally, so that all people have that opportunity. 

Listening in itself is important to keep you in the moment as an actor. When you aren’t listening, you are anticipating the moment; when you are listening, you are in the moment. In life, we are in the moment, we cannot predict what is going to happen next or what another person is going to say next. We must be able to bring this element of unpredictability when we create a character. Even though the actor is aware of the next line, the character is not. So listening is an important part of creating the life of the character. 

Another part of listening is sensorial. Certain sounds change your state of being and stimulate your inner life. 

There are ways that you can practice listening. 

One writing exercise I also find interesting for actors is to go into a coffee shop with a pad and paper and sit close enough to listen to a conversation. Write down exactly what you hear. Then go home and say it out loud. You will find nuances in the speech that become part of your research about how real people naturally talk. 

Another valuable exercise is a sensory walk. Talk a long walk and simply pay attention to the sounds you hear. Really listen. As you hear the birds chirp, how does that make you feel? How does that sound change your state of being? How does that sound create sensation in your body? You are changed from within by sounds. As you hear a voice, a car, leaves rustling in the wind, pay attention. Eventually you will have a list of sounds and understand how each sound affects you. This sensory awareness can be useful when crafting a performance. 

A play I wrote was performed in NYC, and there is a homeless woman in it. I came backstage to visit the actors, and the actress playing the homeless woman had her headphones in up until she walked onstage. After the show, I asked her what she was listening to, and she said she always listened to a particular Fiona Apple song as part of her preparation. This particular song stimulated her emotional life and gave her an internal rhythm that helped her inhabit her character. 

Sam Shepard, who was not a trained actor, said he acted from sensation. He understood through his reading about acting and experimenting, that preparing which sensations are right for the character was the way to connect and bring the character to life. All of his performances are authentic and truthful. 

For an actor listening isn’t just paying attention with your ears. That is essential and something we can all practice forever. But listening is also about recognizing how what you hear affects you and using this awareness to inform your performance. 

“Listening is everything” – Meryl Streep 

“In life we listen to other people. Listen with varying degrees of concentration and attention, right? Actors must learn to listen in a different way.” – Stanislavski 

Please send your specific questions about the art of acting to staytuned@gmail.com and Kymberly will respond to a different question each week! There are no invalid questions, as long as they pertain to your craft and life as an actor. 


Kymberly Harris is an actor’s director. She specializes in character-driven stories, whether the genre is drama, comedy, thriller, or action. Her extensive experience as an acting coach to professional actors of all ages has led actors to seek her out to direct them towards their best performances in film, television, and theatre projects.

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