THE DIMINISHING POWER OF WORDS: SIMPLE LESSONS FROM ACTORS AND THE THEATRE THAT CAN HELP OUR LEADERS.
“Be mindful when it comes to your words. A string of some that don’t mean much to you, may stick with someone else for a lifetime.” — Rachel Wolchin
“Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.” — Pearl Strachan Hurd
Rain blurred window by Sid Ali @pexels
It is great to be back! Directing a play is all-encompassing, and my production has been inspiring and uplifting. I do apologize I have not offered content in so long. I will try to do better!
Two of my favourite quotes above. I quote them often, so I never forget when I am starting to direct a new play. They are a great reminder of the responsibility we have with these weapons given to us by great playwrights like Sarah Kane, William Shakespeare, and August Wilson.
I am shocked daily when watching the news and hearing our supposed leaders throw words and ideas around without any comprehension of their meaning and influence. Great speakers were abundant at one time and their words calmed, educated, healed, and inspired us all.
“I’ve deleted a tweet which used the word “cower,” he said. “I was expressing gratitude that the vaccines help us fight back as a society, but it was a poor choice of word and I sincerely apologize,” Javid said on Twitter.
Recently, the UK health secretary, Sajid Javid, apologized for the use of a word. This goes to the crux of this article. His use of the word “cower” led some to accuse him of failing to understand the concerns of those whose underlying conditions make them particularly vulnerable to the virus — or who have lost loved ones (Guardian Newspaper — https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/25/sajid-javid-apologises-for-saying-it-was-time-to-stop-cowering-from-covid).
Cower, of course, is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as ‘meaning to bend down or move backward with your head down because you are frightened’.
This is just one example of many leaders and celebrities recently who have had to retract words and apologize for misuse. You would think in the age of social media we would take words more seriously, yet we have chosen to go the other way.
The interesting thing is that this phenomenon in the macro is making its way into my classroom and rehearsal hall as well. As a professor of acting and a professional theatre director, I have lately witnessed the same disturbing trend of dismissing the power of words with some of my acting students. The diminishing art of revering language. More specifically, the lack of understanding when it comes to the power of words to land in our hearts.
As a student of the world and humanity, I have witnessed leaders throw around words with very little responsibility for their true meaning and power. The leaders of the past had an acute background and understanding of where words come from and how they could be used to educate, inspire, and move audiences.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Encouragement. Empathy. Hope. Tapping into our shared humanity.
I truly believe my students should include future leaders and not just acting students. This may seem like a bold statement, but it is the crux of what I do with actors every day. This was how I learned my craft. I was lucky enough to have mentors who passed down knowledge directly from some of the great actors in history, including Henry Irving, Dame Edith Evans, Laurence Olivier, and Paul Robeson, to name a few. We, in the theatre, call this the ‘theatre mantle’. It is your responsibility to pass down what you have learned from the most experienced theatre artists to the next generation. It is an unspoken rule that bears huge responsibility.
Actors are taught (or should be) from the first day of training to revere words. We have become experts at mining words so intensely that the clarity of speech and meaning to an audience is unparalleled. That is our job. Confusing an audience is the greatest sin for most serious practitioners of storytelling. We must go back to the word “audience” for that reminder. Audience. Auditorium. Audio. It is all about what the audience hears through the spoken word.
The theatre has always been about the spoken word. Before technology, all people had was the spoken word. My point is, we could all take a chapter out of the theatre and actors’ handbook by making words and meaning a priority again. So, what kind of work do we do in the rehearsal hall to achieve this? How can our leaders be better and bring back this crucial understanding of words and their power? Here are three simple suggestions to help:
- Let’s start with those boring words. Those small, insignificant words we just want to hop over, like NOW, IF, AND, BUT, OR… The truth is, these small words are gold for your argument. I always tell my students that these small words set up everything for the actor. They help a director navigate the shape of a scene. They help bring absolute clarity in storytelling to the audience. And they are the crux of revealing a character’s point of view. These small words are the hint of a new thought by the character and a change in their argument. They are how you bring the audience along with you. For example, try lifting the word “If” or coining it a bit harder. “I will go to the store today at 3pm… IF… it doesn’t rain.
Do you now hear you are giving the audience two alternatives? That you are setting up the words that follow? Now try it with AND. Now try it with OR.
Do you see what I mean? You are leading the audience through your argument or point of view with absolute clarity.
- The small words also carry an immense amount of weight. Small words are a clue to rhythm. An actor cannot help but to go slower on these words (and should!) just as they cannot help to swiftly run over longer words like ‘reconciliation’. Going quickly over small words and going slowly over long words muffles the message. It is difficult for an audience to understand and follow. But as you trod slowly over these short words, you can guide the audience along with your argument. You can even lift them with a slight pause to perk the ears of the audience, so they really hear the important information…
“But here, (pause) upon this bank and shoal of time.”
- Small words are key in helping me figure out what the character is trying to achieve in the scene. How they use small words is a hint at their motivation and intention.
PLAYING WITH WORDS:
- Words need to be used to express feelings and viewpoints. They should never handcuff actors and they should never handcuff you. Feelings and viewpoints must come from words. You must investigate the words as soon as possible and as often as possible. It is this foundation that will eventually super glue the connection between words and feelings/viewpoints. This is what sells your message to an audience. It is what the actor is trying to do constantly, so the audience believes they are the character. If not, it will always feel uncomfortable, fake, and awkward for you, like it does for the actor. Worst of all, it will never ring completely true or believable to your audience. This crime robs the audience of feeling anything for you or being impacted by your story.
- You should be constantly mining words for what they mean, how they sound, and how they relate to the other words around them. Words should always echo what the sense is. Meaning, sound, and their relationship to each other. This is where you find your nuance and the argument in your message. It is where you start stringing the words together to achieve a full thought. It is where you start building the bigger picture. From the very first word to the very last word, you should be thinking about:
Meaning: You must investigate every meaning of the word. You must know its historical context and where it came from. You should also know when and how the meaning changed. Does the word say a certain period or class, for example? Is it used a great deal or is it rarely heard these days? What are the images that pop into your mind when you hear or say the word?
Sound: Many words come from sound (bang, crash, croak, cuckoo). How does investigating that sound help you with the intention of the character? Your intention in the speech? Every single one of the great writers and playwrights coined their words to perfection. They are constantly trying to find the perfect word to use for the story and characters. The great playwrights who are in rehearsal listen to the words being spoken by the actors and then change them (based on the sound) for clarity of intention/meaning. This goes to the core of direct communication with the audience. The actor needs to constantly speak aloud and hear the way a word sounds.
Relate: Like a detective gathering evidence for a crime, once you start putting the words of a line together, you start gathering more evidence about the crux of a character’s argument and intention. You must build your character word by word. Why did they choose this word? Why did they choose to follow this word with this word? You must build your speech word by word. This type of work will eventually give you a clue to, arguably, the most important part of acting: the trampoline to the thought. Knowing how each word relates to one another will eventually provide you with this trampoline that infuses the line with specific and detailed intention.You will know exactly how to deliver this moment or this line. This is the moment the audience gets complete clarity about the story and characters.
THE IMAGE BEHIND THE WORD:
- True power lies in the images behind the words. What will be evoked in the audience’s mind when you say a certain word?
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
This must be considered when writing or delivering any speech to an audience. Words evoke images that ignite an emotional connection with those who hear them. What do you want that emotional connection to be? This is crucial to any great message.
Now I know I have been speaking from a director or actor’s point of view above. You just need to relate this to your speech and your audience.
In conclusion, once you start incorporating this crucial work into your process, you will start mastering the language and communication that all great orators achieve. Once you arrive at this moment, your audience receives perfect storytelling that educates, entertains, moves, thrills, and keeps them on the edge of their seat. More importantly, your message arrives crystal clear and lands just the way you intended it.
In the end, words make a difference. Those who recognise their power and the responsibility of finding the right words to say, can truly change the world. And, as you can see, it takes a lot of work and effort to get there.