I am sitting in the theatre, watching a performance of a classical play, directed by a famous director. The theatre and the actors have a good reputation. The play is strong; but tonight I am quite bored. What is going on? What is lacking? It is very simple. What is lacking is a basic thing: the actors are not listening to each other.
This little episode is quite representative of the contemporary theatre and of our time in general: people express opinions, statements and assessments, but they do not want to hear the other person’s perspective. Many of the conflicts of the twenty-first century are rooted in this general lack of listening. We deliver monologues, but do not invest our energy in a real dialogue. Not listening is a dead end on stage.
Michael Chekhov suggests that artists should “bring to silence” their usual likes and dislikes, sympathies and antipathies (Powers 29), and “listen with their heart” (44). There is a beautiful photograph of him, sitting at the wayside, calmly, absorbed in his thoughts (Boner 151). It looks like Chekhov is meditating or daydreaming, surrendering to the world of imagination. He calls it “active waiting.” Is he getting in contact with imaginary beings around him? Opening to a new spiritual world? Is he listening? We do not know. But we can feel: acting starts in this active silence.
At his studio in Dartington Hall, Chekhov put concentration and imagination exercises at the very beginning of the curriculum (2000). Some of them are dealing directly with listening (17, 48). Chekhov points out that there are two different kinds of concentration. In the first one, an object, a sound or a person attracts you because it is beautiful; it makes you concentrate unwittingly (16). The second type is active. You pick up something unattractive and bring yourself to notice it: “that is at once a conscious, willed concentration and this is what we are interested in” (16). To our understanding of listening, this view of concentration means two things. First, listening is an action. It is a movement that can be inner or outer. Second, listening is an act of will. We can make a choice to listen to or to ignore what surrounds us.
Chekhov describes concentration as a fourfold process, which happens more or less simultaneously (1990: 20; 1991: 10). For the action of listening this process is: First, you hold the sound. Second, you are sending yourself out towards it. Third, you are drawing the sound in. And fourth, you merge with the sound; you are becoming one with it. We all have had those moments when we hear music, or a voice, or a simple sound, and we know we are one with it. These moments feel simply right and beautiful. We are fully at ease, without using any excessive tension. The sound is in us and we are in the sound. So, we can understand listening as “sending out” and “drawing in” at the same time, similar to Chekhov’s radiating and receiving. When working on a part, you can go through the whole play and look where your character is listening in a more “receiving mode” and where he/she is listening in a more “radiating and giving mode.” In fact, there is no giving without receiving and no receiving without giving. Listening is both. Your attention is travelling between you and the sound.
Probably Chekhov’s best known acting tool is Psychological Gesture (PG) (1985: 107; 1990: 45-82). Psychological Gesture refers to a full-body psycho-physical movement with a clear direction and intention that represents the essence of the character’s objective.
Listening is movement with intention, an action connected to the will. And this movement with intention we call a Gesture. So, listening, in fact, is an artistic choice: I can choose WHAT the objective of my listening is and what the Psychological Gesture underlying it is. And I can make a choice about HOW I am listening; that is, what quality I give my gesture of listening, and how I relate to the inner images connected to it.
Listening with Your Heart
In his lectures to actors in Hollywood, Michael Chekhov talks about the egotism in our own speaking and listening (2004). This sounds very timely. But how can we re-learn the art of listening?
The first step is to sharpen our awareness about the subject we listen to. A simple example: My daughter plays the violin. And I love to see her practicing, listening to the music. However, I have to ask myself how I am listening. Am I really listening to the music? Or am I concentrating on the girl getting it right—on the opinions I have about music? While she is practicing, my thoughts drift away. I am not concentrated. I am not really with my daughter nor am I with the music. So, there is a lot to improve.
Ask yourself: How are you listening to another person in a conversation? Where is your focus and attention? In Chekhov’s words:
Am I listening with an open mind or heart; am I listening with my mind which is trying to ‘figure out’ intellectually what is being said? Am I listening with critical feelings because I do not like or trust this person? While listening am I nodding in agreement because my own opinion is being expressed by another? Am I listening primarily to agree or disagree with what is being said? Am I listening with only half an ear while concentrating on what I will say next? (Powers 43)
I guess most of us know the problem: we can be so indifferent. Chekhov gives us a simple advice:
Try to listen to what someone is saying with your heart while asking your mind and your judgement to be silent for a time. You will always have time afterwards to analyze, agree, accept, deny or criticize—but start by listening with your heart. (44)
Then, he adds a few details regarding this type of listening: humour and a feeling of ease. Because if one can laugh about oneself, one can open one’s heart and ears to others.
Gestures of Listening
During the last years I developed a series of exercises with my ensemble, which I call “Gestures of Listening.” I refer to the work of Otto Scharmer, who has identified four essential layers of attention (2016). Taking Scharmer’s ideas into the working space, we can translate four different modes of listening into Psychological Gestures and explore them physically on the floor:
- Listening as downloading, or, as I call it, listening as “checking and filing.” In this mode of listening, you simply reconfirm habitual judgments. “Yeah, I know that already.” You may agree or disagree with what you heard, but you are staying in the boundaries of yourself. Your perception comes from a place of habitual judgement.
- Object-focused or factual listening. “Ooh, look at that!” It’s a type of listening that makes us get vital information, listening “by paying attention to facts and to novel or disconfirming data” (Scharmer 11). In this mode, you focus on what differs from what you already know. You perceive with your senses and your open mind.
- Empathic listening. For the third mode, we need “to activate and tune a special instrument: the open heart, that is, the empathic capacity to connect directly with another person or living system” (12). We begin to see “how the world unfolds through someone else’s eyes” (12). This skill comes close to what Chekhov calls “listening with your heart,” and—important for actors—it can be trained and developed. Your attention is with the other. You tune in to and sense from within with your open mind and open heart.
- Generative listening. This fourth mode Scharmer calls “listening from the emerging field of the future” (12). In the communication, the sender and the receiver create together something entirely new. They connect to something larger than themselves: Together they generate in the light of “the highest future possibility that wants to emerge” (12). “You know that you have been operating on the fourth level when, at the end of the conversation, you realize that you are no longer the same person you were when you started the conversation” (13). In the mode of generative listening, we go through a profound process of transformation. For Chekhov, that is exactly what acting is about: “Every true artist, and especially talented actors, bear within themselves a deeply rooted and often unconscious desire for transformation” (2004). Our listening and understanding originates from the source of what wants to emerge, that is, from our open mind, heart and will.
Now, let us take these listening modes into practice. The exercises are done by the entire ensemble simultaneously.
a) Listening: Downloading
Two actors work together as a pair. Actor A talks to Actor B. B listens to A’s story, “checking and filing” everything he hears. He listens with an attitude of knowing already what the other says. He has an opinion about what he hears. He may or may not agree.
b) Finding a Gesture
Now the Actor A is asked to stand in front of his/her partner and find a full body gesture that expresses how the Actor B just listened to him/her. The gesture needs to have a clear shape and direction. It has a beginning, middle and an end. There is a preparation before the physical beginning, and there is a sustaining of the inner movement following the physical end; the gesture continues to radiate.
Observation during the exercise:
Some of the listening actors are nodding all the time. “Oh yeah, you are so right!”, “That’s exactly what I say!” Others are shaking their heads because they always know better. Whatever A says, B has already an opinion about confirming his/her point of view. Although in some of the discussions there is agreement and fraternization, the general atmosphere in the room turns into nervousness and frustration.
Discussion with the actors after the exercise:
“This was so annoying. He wasn’t interested in me at all, only in himself.”
A to B: “You were sucking me in! Like a vampire!”
B: “It was boring what you said. I already knew it.”
In this kind of listening, the receiving seems to be blocked. The attention moves on a one-way road, if it moves at all.
a) Listening: Object-Focused
Work with the same partner. Actor B asks Actor A for some information, such as directions to the airport, a medical advice, a scientific experiment, a cooking recipe, etc. The information needs to be of vital importance for the receiver, so the Actor A will be ready to explain.
Find a gesture for this kind of listening. Jump into that gesture! Do the gesture again but without the jump. Work on the form and the direction. How does your breath flow? Let the gesture surf on that breath. Give it a sound. Sustain the inner movement; say “I want to . . . ,” expressing your will in an active verb. Where is your focus, your gaze?
Observation during the exercise:
The actors seem more tuned into each other. Some of them seem to be in a hurry. Most of them are focused on their thoughts, as if the centre of their body was in the head. There is serious talk but also laughter and amazement.
Discussion with the actors after the exercise:
“Has your gesture changed, compared to the last exercise?”
“Absolutely! This time I had the impression he really connected to me.”
“Suddenly he really wanted something from me. Haha, like my son when he calls me and needs money.”
“My gesture changed, and so did the objective of my listening.”
Okay, let’s move on!
a) Listening: Empathic
Now, the Actors B are asked to find a new partner. This partner (new actor A) tells you a story or an anecdote, something which moves him/her very much. It may be funny or annoying. It may be a real story from his/her life or something they heard. It may be a secret. But it has to move you. When you listen to A’s words, you want to understand how your partner feels saying them. You want to perceive the world through his/her eyes. Imagine you connect from heart to heart.
Now, again, A stands in front of B and makes a clear and bold gesture which expresses B’s listening. Remember the preparation, beginning-middle-end, the sustaining of the movement and energy. Repeat the gesture three times. Radiate it into the space. Close your eyes. Listen to yourself. Listen to the space.
Observation during the exercise:
The whole atmosphere of the room is transforming. It is getting more intimate. People move closer. They touch each other. Some start to cry. Others burst into laughter. One pair speaks in a very low voice: it seems they do not want anybody else to hear what they say. Others look at each other stunned.
Discussion with the actors after the exercise:
“I wanted to hug him all the time. He was so vulnerable.”
“I think the first time in my life I understand how it feels for a woman to be in such a situation.”
“He told me this very dark secret. First I was disgusted and wanted to push him away. But then I felt pity.”
This mode of listening seems to be quite familiar to the actors. They are getting excited, they want to go on sharing their experience and impressions. But we are not yet finished.
a) Listening: Generative
Now, let’s make groups of three. You can choose who tells the story. One of you will tell the story, and while you are listening and telling, you imagine that you have a common future. The three of you share a possible future, and together you will create that future, through your listening.
Again, put the listening into movement! Spread out in the room and make a gesture of listening with the quality of having a common future with your partners. Breathe and add voice. Now, internalize the gesture. Do it three times, then one time inwardly. Remember to sustain the energy after you finish the physical movement. Go on radiating that inner gesture while you talk to each other again. Express your objective in an active verb.
Observation during the exercise:
Both the atmosphere and the quality of the listening have changed again. It sounds as if people are going to construct something together. Action. Will power. It seems, there is not one speaker and two listeners anymore. Speaking and listening mix and merge. The actors bring together what they have and build something new out of it. It is a synthesis.
Discussion with the actors after the exercise:
“There was a lifting in the listening.”
“It was not any more about me listening and him speaking. It was about sharing.”
“It feels like becoming parents. We just gave birth to a little baby. And we will take care for this new born child, won’t we?” Her partners nod and smile.
“This kind of contact allows something almost there to come forward.”
One of the actors suggests this is creative listening. Others speak about giving and receiving at the same time, finding it a liberating and empowering experience.
In these exercises, we have used the gestures to express physically what is going on in a conversation. However, in a rehearsal hall we can also start from the other end. We can execute a gesture, give it a quality and, then, listen with this energy, while surfing on the movement of the inner gesture. It is an artistic choice. We can decide which inner gestures we use as a basis for our listening. Is it an opening? A squeezing? A penetrating? An embrace? And, in what quality do we want to colour our listening: the quality of warmth or cold, of indifference or curiosity?
Telling a Story
On stage, we apply these exercises to many aspects of our work. My students at Chekhov International School Hamburg worked on Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. In one class, we explored the episode in which the Singer tells the story of Grusha and the noble child. It starts like this:
As she was standing between courtyard and gate,
She heard or she thought she heard a low voice calling.
The child called to her,
Not whining, but calling quite sensibly,
Or so it seemed to her.
“Woman,” it said, “help me.” (Brecht 28)
We started with asking, how we, as an audience, would listen to the Singer’s story about Grusha and the child. Using the “Gestures of Listening,” we examined the influence of the audience’s listening on the Singer’s storytelling.
Brecht, in his rehearsals with the Berliner Ensemble, frequently asked the actors to retell the plot of the play in their own words. So, now, one actor stands in front of us and tells us the whole story. Then, in a second turn, he tells it again, this time only using Brecht’s written words. The audience wants to understand what happened, the facts. The Singer wants to give this information. This work with the “object-focused listening” is a very good training technique in making your storytelling precise.
In a next step, we change our listening mode to empathic. The audience wants to understand with the heart, we want to see the world with the Singer’s eyes. Does he sympathize with Grusha or is he on the governor’s side? Does he reveal his own attitude to what happens? How does he feel about the child’s destiny? Again, we translate our listening into gestures. The movement in space is revealing.
In a third step, we go into “generative listening” and into its gestures. In the discussion, the actor-storyteller says that he was actually not just telling the story but bringing it into life together with the audience, “as if we were creating these words together right in this moment.” Normally, we underestimate how powerful our active listening can be. But here it became palpable. Each of our gestures of listening transformed the storyteller and how he would deliver the story.
Naturally, you can also think the other way round: how does the singer, the storyteller, listen to his/her audience? Chekhov suggested actors ask questions directed at and train themselves in listening to different imaginary audiences (1991: 22). So, what would change if the attentive Singer listened to his audience, imagining or “generating a common future” together with it? His storytelling would be coloured with a different quality every night. His performance would stay fresh and multi-dimensional, and never become routine.
Approaching Your Character
Listening is the starting point of every artistic characterization. The actor needs to listen to the images surrounding him/her, listen to the author’s text and the given circumstances, and listen to the space, to the partner, to the words that have been said. Instead of playing myself, I want to follow the character. Chekhov suggests that we ask questions of our character and listen to the answers he/she gives us (1990: 16, 98).
Imagine you never met your character before. Maybe you just heard or read about him/her, that’s all. Today, you will have a date with your character. That person is still a total stranger to you. So, when you meet the character for the first time, you may want to approach him/her slowly. You cannot tell him/her your whole life on your first meeting, and you are not ready to hear everything on the first meeting either. This other person might even be unpleasant or strange to you. Remember what Chekhov says about concentration: you do not have to be attracted by that person at first sight. Maybe a director just gave you that part and you did not even want to play that character. But, now, you decide to meet him/her. That is the place where acting begins. Curiosity. Excitement. The excitement of not knowing what will come. Not yet knowing the other, but eagerly wanting to get to know him/her. You are ready, so ready—to listen.
You meet your character in your imagination. You will ask him/her many questions. And you will listen to the answers. Oooh, now, you are already a bit attracted to him/her, are you not?
Now: Go through the four modes of listening. Do not skip any of them. How will you listen to your character? From which place will you open yourself? Habitual judgement? Open mind? Open heart? Open will?
It is possible to meet your character and let your own opinions be confirmed by him/her. Many couples function like this. But this communication comes to its limits very soon. You will get bored with your character and your character will get bored with you.
So, try another mode: you want to understand your character’s background, you need to know some facts about him/her. Your mind is wide open. When you do this, you will get a lot of important and interesting information about this person. You need that information. You may need it to come closer, to let go your fear and your opinion of “how it has to be.” So, go ahead: read the play again and again, research the period, collect all the material you can get! Whatever you want to know, follow your curiosity. But watch out! You are still in your head. You have no idea who this person really is. Only facts.
Move on. Try to understand him/her from your heart. Listen from your heart wide open. The characters are transparent. You can look inside them. You will see their deepest intentions, doubts, secrets, emotions, and you will hear their most intimate fears, desires, needs and dreams—if you know how to listen. You will learn to see the world through your character’s eyes and hear it with his/her ears. What could be more exciting? So, enjoy diving into that other person’s psychology and inner life! But do not forget: it is his/her life, not yours.
As an actor, you want to transform into that other life. Or rather, you want to become transformed by the encounter with this exciting Other. Wow, he/she is so different from you. So, listen to your character “from the emerging field of the future”! What is the gesture of your listening? What are the appropriate qualities for it? Imagine you create something new together, maybe a common future. You will become something bigger than the two of you. You will give birth to a really new character; someone Shakespeare or Schiller might have imagined but nobody has yet seen. That is the joy of the listening actor: losing yourself in somebody who is much larger than you. You surrender yourself fully to the Other. Your little “daily-life ego” disappears and your “artistic ego” takes over. You listen with your mind, heart and will, widely open.
How the Characters Listen
Characters are listeners—maybe good listeners, maybe bad listeners. They might listen very differently from you, the actor, because they are different from you. If you play a weak listener, you, the actor, still have to be a very strong listener. Enjoy these differences!
Coming back to Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Look at the young kitchen maid Grusha, and look at how she listens to the noble child. How does her listening influence her decision to take the boy and escape with him to the northern mountains? It is quite obvious that the child makes Grusha’s way of listening shift. And her listening is transforming her. It generates action.
Then, observe the maid listening to her lover, the soldier Simon Shashava. Observe how they listen to each other, when they meet for the first time. Note the change in their listening after two years. He is coming back from the war, seeing her married to another man and having a little boy: “Does the young lady wish to say someone has come too late?” (Brecht 60) How is Simon approaching her now? How does Grusha desire he would listen to her? Become aware of how their listening creates a unique atmosphere in the space.
You can ask these questions of any character. Go through the play and explore the characters’ gestures of listening, how they subtly shift from one quality to another. Find the turning points for those shifts. Some characters listen only because they want to speak themselves. Some treat the things heard like a piece of gold; some will use the things heard to destroy the others; some will use them to heal. This kind of exploration may go on and on and on. Enjoy doing it!
Let us imagine “listening for a mutual future possibility” as the leitmotif of our daily artistic work. How responsively would actors and directors listen to each other! How bold and inspiring atmospheres would we create! We would have something very special to give to our audience.
Boner, Georgette. Hommage an Michael Tschechow. Zürich: Werner Claassen Verlag. 1994.
Brecht, Bertolt. The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Trans. Eric Bentley. London: Penguin. 2007.
Chekhov, Michael. Lessons for the Professional Actor. Ed. Deirdre Hurst Du Prey. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications.1985.
—. Die Kunst des Schauspielers. Moskauer Ausgabe. Stuttgart: Urachhaus Edition Bühnenkunst. 1990.
—. On the Technique of Acting. Ed. Mel Gordon. Preface and Afterword by Mala Powers. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 1991.
—. Lessons for Teachers of his Acting Technique. Transcribed by Deirdre Hurst du Prey. Ottawa: Dovehouse Editions Inc. 2000.
—. On Theatre and the Art of Acting: The Five-Hour CD Master Class with the Acclaimed Actor-Director-Teacher, Lectures Recorded by Michael Chekhov in 1955. 4 CDs. New York: Working Arts. 2004.
Powers, Mala. A Guide to Discovery with Exercises. Companion Booklet to Michael Chekhov, On Theatre and the Art of Acting: The Five-Hour CD Master Class with the Acclaimed Actor-Director-Teacher, Lectures Recorded by Michael Chekhov in 1955. 4 CDs. New York: Working Arts. 2004.
Scharmer, C. Otto. Theory U – Leading from the Future as It Emerges. 2nd Edition Oakland: Berrett-Koehler. 2016.
 All translations from German to English are by the author.
*Ulrich Meyer-Horsch: Actor and director with a twenty-five-year experience in German state theatre. Artistic director of Chekhov International School / Michael Chekhov Studio Hamburg. Ulrich is a co-founder of Michael Chekhov Europe (MCE) and member of the international faculty of MICHA, New York. He has been teaching throughout Europe, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, the US, Japan and Taiwan. He is a guest professor at Yeditepe University Istanbul. As a director, he is known for his playful productions of the works of Bertolt Brecht. Until 2015, he served as Associate Artistic Director of Kreuzgangspiele Feuchtwangen, one of Germany’s biggest summer theatres.