Here’s a brief experiment for you. If you happen to be working on a play, find a scene partner and run a short dialogue while you have a third person observe. You can also test this with a monologue – just speak a speech to someone else while someone watches.

Now have a normal conversation together, where you ask each other about your ideas on a particular subject. For example, ‘Why do you like living in London?’ Or, ‘What do you think about New York?’

Then ask the person observing what they noticed about your eye contact.

My research suggests that when you are speaking scripted lines you tend to have almost unbroken eye contact. But when you are having a natural conversation, you look away from time to time while you are formulating your thoughts. That’s a natural human trait.

It’s the balance of eye contact and breaking eye contact while speaking that helps create rapport. The listener on the other hand usually makes longer eye contact when listening, except sometimes when they are formulating a response or a new question: that’s when they look away.

This explains why actors often look unnatural when they are trying their hardest to be intense or interesting. Unbroken eye contact, sustained by both of you for too long, goes against normal human behaviour and therefore can look artificial.

So, what is too long? If one character is threatening or trying strongly to influence another character, then unbroken eye contact will help do the trick. But only for as long as that line of thinking lasts. Otherwise it loses effectiveness.

Test this idea for yourself. In everyday life, watch other people having a conversation. Also, notice the pattern of holding and breaking eye contact in your own conversations. Then test it in your next rehearsal.

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We’re all born with fairly open faces, but by the time we’re 30 or 40, that face may have turned into a character mask that reflects our default mood.

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Warmth is the quality of heart in a performance. It’s about the way you connect with other people. When you act with warmth, you project affection, goodwill and kindliness – all powerful qualities to be on the receiving end of.

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Let’s be disruptive!

Teaching eight groups at a drama summer school recently I was struck by their different chemistry. In some groups the actors worked harmoniously together but other groups seemed disruptive. Personalities were clashing.

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For anyone who doubts it, the law of attraction – like attract like – really does work.
You’ve probably experienced it yourself, but I’ll give you one example.

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If I had to boil everything down to one single secret of success, I’d say it’s this: Take action!

In it’s zen-like simplicity that has everything. By all means have a dream and go with the flow of the universe (instead of fighting against it) but do so by taking action in the first place.

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Watching the Diving finals of the Olympics I was intrigued to learn that divers lose points for making a big splash when they enter the water. The aim is ideally to hit the water without any disturbance whatsoever.

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Success as an actor doesn’t just fall into your lap, while you passively pocket the pay cheques. Even the most gifted actors have to work at it. And to work at it, you need to be motivated. But how do you get motivated?

The leadership writer, John Adair tells us that half our motivation comes from within us and half from our environment. He calls it the 50-50 rule. In other words, you may be a naturally driven person and hugely ambitious, but unless you’re in a highly motivating environment, you’re unlikely to see those ambitions fulfilled. So you need to choose carefully the place where you want to work and make sure you get there.

Take drama schools for example. Several of my students at Guildhall got in on their second, third or even fourth attempt. That means they risked up to four years of their lives to get into what they believed was the best and most motivating environment in which to become an actor. It’s not just Guildhall: other top drama schools will tell you the same story.

The same goes for theatre companies. Have you ever found yourself in the cast of a play where nobody cared much or believed in the project? How long did your enthusiasm last? Equally, you may be lucky enough to have a director who keeps everyone inspired and motivated, and as a result, rehearsals are buzzing with energy.

There’s one other thing you can do, and this is vital: surround yourself with motivated people. Avoid the emotional vampires. Instead, hang around with the people who have even more enthusiasm than you. In that environment you’ll feel challenged, energised and inspired to achieve your highest potential.

But to be fully motivated, you must find half of that within yourself. That’s your responsibility. And like so many things in life this parallels the acting process itself. The passive actor will say to the director: “What’s my motivation in this scene?” This means they haven’t done their homework and the scene is unlikely to take off.

Actors sometimes ask me about the relation between their conscious choices made in rehearsal and the eventual performance. “I’ve done the work,” they’ll say. “I’ve sorted out my given circumstances, my animal, my Laban efforts, my elements, my objectives. But how do I keep all that going in the performance?” Their worry is that they’ll lose spontaneity.

The performance can and should still have spontaneity, but within the discipline of the framework you’ve worked out for yourself. In performance, the framework needs to be so ingrained into your muscular memory that you should no longer need to think about it. Nor should the audience, because they must never be able to see your process or the exercises that you’ve used along the way. They should just be able to enjoy the ride.

It’s like riding a bicycle. When you’re learning, you’re concentrating fully on the technique that will keep the damn thing upright. It’s conscious competence. It’s also hard work because there’s a lot of inefficient, clumsy effort involved and frequent falls, and with that the possibility of getting hurt.

Later, after months or years of cycling, you never give a thought to the technique, yet it’s invisibly there. The bicycle stays effortlessly upright and you’re able to concentrate on your destination. Now you’re moving forward more smoothly and efficiently, and you can even afford the spontaneity of improvising a flashy turn, or a slowing down, or speeding up, just for the fun of it. With your technique in place, you can play a little. It’s still relative though, because you’re sometimes peddling away only to be overtaken by another cyclist, with better technique, gliding effortlessly past you.

Effective performance, whether acting or cycling, is about momentum with economy, which in turn leads to grace. Rehearsals should be clumsy. Performances should be graceful.

When you’re working on a character, try thinking of your choices as based on a funnel model. Picture it.

At the top of the funnel, the circumference is wide and the water pressure is low. In the early rehearsals, you try out lots of possibilities, keeping an open mind and working in a very ‘right brain’ mode, drawing on your imagination and instinct to explore the wide range of choices you have.

As you come down towards the spout of the funnel, the water pressure is a little higher. In rehearsal you start to narrow your choices, discarding the ideas that were not right for the character or the play, and refining the ones that might be. You’re now starting to apply more ‘left brain’ thinking to get order into your choices.

By the time the water comes out of the spout – your performance – the pressure is high and the sheer force of the water is strong because the circumference of the spout is much narrower than at the top. The performance has focused power, supported by all the choices you made at the start.

The opposite of this is the cylinder model. Here your choices are as narrow at the top as they are at the bottom. The water comes out with less focus. There’s not much exploration at the start and there’s not much difference at the end.

The point is to freely explore a wide range of choices in early rehearsals and then start to narrow your choices so you have a reliable form, or physical score, for the role. It sounds obvious, but how many actors really do that?