Acting with Emphasis and Pause

Acting technique with words.

In acting, words are everything. As one of my mentors once said, “The actor can only ever navigate the text.” This is something many young directors ignore or forget about when leading a group of actors through a dramatic text.

Most actors dedicate their lives to the text and are devoted to it. If they aren’t, then they are devoted to the idea of celebrity and wealth. There really is no other reason to become an actor unless you want to tell stories and be a part of great writing. I am still fascinated to this day by the likes of Albee, Beckett, Fugard, Kane, McDonagh, Miller, Moliere, Parks, Pinter, Shakespeare, Wilde, Williams, and Wilson (August, that is). This is where I start. I have a thousand more I want to read and dissect to get to the heart and soul of the writer. To me, the playwright is everything, and the almighty thought of the character is what I strive to understand.

Yet, within those thoughts lie the individual words pieced together with care and absolute purpose.

I have always looked at each word as a piece of a puzzle when breaking down a script. In essence, each word is a key to unlocking a thought. By unlocking this thought, we unlock character and intention.

Of course, character and intention are the crux of what an actor is looking for. It is also what the director is looking for to be able to help and support the actor. Which, of course, is the real definition of the director’s job description. Sure, we do many other things. But all of those other decisions we make when it comes to the design and world of the play are still made to help and support the actor.

Emphasis and pause are two of the greatest gifts we can remind actors about to help elevate character and the text.

Emphasis and pause are what actors should be consuming themselves with when approaching any script.

I could, of course, demonstrate this quite quickly and easily with a couple of actors in a rehearsal hall. I will do my best to give an example here of what I mean.

Let’s start with the pause. Many writers’ draught this within the play when they want it. Beckett, for example, was obsessed with pauses. He knew better than anyone where a pause should be and was quite specific about it. The great actors also find pauses where the writer has not penned them in the script. This is done with great intuition and understanding of the power. Both Beckett and the great actor understand that a pause can elevate the next word or thought in a text. When the audience hears a pause after a great deal of speech, it perks their ears. The pause becomes a suspension of a moment where the audience’s ears become magnified just waiting for the next word or thought. Great writers strategically put important information after a pause, and great actors know the audience will never miss that important information when they place a pause before it. Silence is almost a more powerful force than speech. This is why you never use them too often, or else it kills their power. It also has the opposite effect of boring the audience and turning off their ears. Pauses are the actors’ most powerful tool in elevating certain words and thoughts that they know the audience will never forget. Here is an example:

Macbeth: “Cannot once start me. Wherefore was that cry? “

Seyton: “The queen, my lord, is dead.”

If the director and the actor playing Seyton decide to put a pause before he speaks, we ensure the audience hears the crucial information that comes next. After the question and the pause, all of the audience’s ears are waiting for the answer… “The queen, my lord, is dead.” Now, I am not saying you have to do this, but it is an example of elevating a moment in your story that you may choose to elevate as crucial to your story. Crucial to your character.

Next is emphasis. The actors’ “take” on a part has a huge amount to do with the way that actor interprets the text. We have read many a review of how Olivier delivered the lines this way versus the way Gielgud and Burton spoke them. It was a big factor in what made their performance of Hamlet different. It separated them from the rest. Here is an example of emphasis:

“Do you ride to town today?”

Okay, here is our line of text. These six words have no fewer than four different meanings. Do you understand how the actor might interpret the meanings? It completely changes the character and the story for the audience depending on how the actor explores emphasis.

So let’s break down those meanings:

“Do you ride to town today?” The answer may be “No, I intend to send my sister.”

“Do you ride to town today?” The answer may be “No, I intend to walk.”

“Do you ride to town today?” The answer may be “No, I intend to ride in the park.”

“Do you ride to town to-day?” The answer may be “No, but I might on the weekend.”

It is the same line of text. But because of the emphasis, the actor (and the director discussing it together) has made a choice that changes the story and brings to life a certain point of view of the character.

Emphasis then becomes the foundation of speaking. It is a specificity of thought for the audience to be able to interpret what is going on.

In short, it means you, as an actor, and the director, have mastered the inner meaning of the lines.

It is by emphasis and pause that the actor illustrates and illuminates the writer’s words.

This is technique.

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Lee Samuel Wilson

Lee Samuel Wilson

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Lee holds Canadian, British & Irish citizenship. He is an actor, director, dramaturg, professor, and artistic director.