Words ≠ Communication

The meaning of words is a very small part of how we communicate.

Albert Mehrabian, a UCLA psychology professor in the 1960s, posited that only 7% of what we communicate comes through the words themselves.  About 38% comes from other verbal clues (intonation, volume, etc.), and the rest from body language.  Obviously, language itself may be more important in some conversations than others.  If you don’t pay attention to the words in a math or science class, you may not pass the test!

However, ordinary conversation – what we use on stage – probably follows this breakdown, at least closely enough.  Whatever the numbers really are, we need to pay considerable attention to how we use our voices and our bodies if we are going to convey the story’s meaning most effectively.

In real life, we do this naturally.  Our emotions automatically result in paralinguistic choices (the verbal stuff not related to the meaning of the words) that convey our emotions.  And that which we have trouble expressing in words, we express through our bodies.  Again, without much thought about those choices.

I may not be able to find words that tell you just how much I care about you, but looking in your eyes and stroking your shoulder underscores the words, “I love you.”  If I’m having trouble getting you to understand something, I probably am not going to say, “Boy, am I frustrated that you are being so obtuse!”, but I might turn and walk away while throwing my hands up in the air, as if that will somehow signal the gods to send me the magic words I can’t find myself.

The two examples I’ve just given you are pretty common ways of expressing those emotions.  But they are hardly the only ones.soup  I might say “I love you” by putting a bowl of soup in front of you and sitting down to attentively watch you eat it.  I might deal with my frustration by taking a deep breath and looking down at the ground while I gather myself, and then force myself to speak very slowly and calmly to explain myself.

Who your character is helps to determine the choices you should make as an actor, although you’ll find that your characters will often surprise you with choices you thought were inappropriate.  The point of this post is that if you’re just going to trust the words to do the job for you, you’re throwing away opportunities to develop a richer characterization.

Most actors I work with understand that they need to use some verbal inflection, but don’t explore the full range of their voices and the meaning that can add.  And most don’t use physical movement to any real degree to convey meaning.  Movement onstage becomes practical:  I need to answer the phone, because my next lines are part of a phone conversation; I need to pick up the gift because I need to take it offstage with me when I exit; I need to sit on the couch because the script says so.

So we’re going to intentionally explore these tools in class, so that you can learn how to bring them to bear in the next play you do!


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