Silence: The Differentiator

Why silence? As Sanford Meisner once said, “Silence has a myriad of meanings. In theater, silence is an absence of words, but never an absence of meaning.”

A word can be emphasized and a thought underlined by silence. Silence has a certain energy to it like no other energy source. It has the power to get people to think and to act. It can help slow the mind down.

The following excerpt taken from “Meisner on Acting” demonstrates the power of silence:

“Meisner: ‘A moment of silence is something, too. Let me prove it to you. Ask me whether I think you have talent.

Student: ‘Mr. Meisner, do you think I have talent?

‘Meisner’s head cocks away from the student and he maintains complete silence. The class begins to laugh.

Meisner: ‘That was silent, wasn’t it? My silence was very expressive.'”

The trouble with silence is that it can make people feel uncomfortable and alone. Because of how uncomfortable silence is, many people feel the need to fill the void with needless chatter. But a rapid, close, unbroken delivery of words causes ideas to become blurred and to recede into common noise — like a television left on in the background. This increases the risk that an audience — including a jury — will lose focus.

The counterpart of silence is stillness. Herky-jerky gestures, facial ticks, head bobbing, eye-rolling, forced gestures, are all forms of “indicating” that are the polar opposite of truthful behavior and can distract your audience. As actors, we are taught the importance of doing nothing and living in the moment without arbitrarily filling the void. Learning to leave yourself alone in order to experience — and convey — something genuine will help the jury connect with the truth of your narrative.

For example, you’re sitting alone in your room. There is a “knock at the door”. You answer the door. What do you do when you open the door? You “work off” your partner. And what if you’re not getting anything from your partner? Then “don’t do anything until something happens to make you do it.” No greetings, no invitations, no blather, and above all, no thinking!

Actors are taught to generate a clear and specific point of view prior to going on-camera and that cannot be any more true than in close-ups. When your point of view is clear, it registers in your facial expression and your eyes. Your face tells the story of the moment.

Who can forget the expression on Macaulay Culkin’s face in “Home Alone” while standing in front of the mirror and rubbing after-shave on his face? This picture is emblazoned in my mind like the iconic monument of the soldiers raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. Kevin’s facial expression reveals more about what he was feeling in that moment than any four-letter word or screeching sound he could have let out.

Just as words could not do justice to Kevin’s facial expression, silence can also reveal an inner struggle. In director Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” Michael Fassbender is eloquent in his silence. His inner struggle is apparent. He leaves space for the audience to connect with him on an emotional level.

Claire Foy epitomizes what it means to be still and emotionally full in “The Crown.” She can say as much with a raised eyebrow as a page of dialogue. For this reason, actors often view the camera as a lie detector that exposes every false move they make. It pierces the husk of the actor.

Trial lawyers who can master emphasis and impact devices in speech increase their chances of convincing juries.

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