Learning About Stillness and Acting Without Movement

by Bill Howey

Older man

Learn how to affect an audience with actions not words.


What might be missing in your acting menu is stillness. Stillness is more affecting to an audience than actions and often more than words. Many actors do not realize the impact well placed stillness has on their performance. This may be because stillness often happens after lines are lost or a mistake is made and these times are best forgotten.

The stillness I'm talking about is a palpable beat, a compelling pause absent of action or movement but filled with thought and intention. As in the eye of a hurricane, there is stillness between periods of intense energy. Inside the eye, there is a sense that something else is coming, perhaps even stronger than what just preceded it.

A still character reveals intention and causes anticipation of what is to come for the audience. Alfred Hitchcock said it's not the bang that terrifies but the anticipation of it. And anticipation is effectively served up during stillness. Stillness also highlights what has just happened or what was just said.

Too many actors clog up stillness with physical actions blocking intention and sub-text. Although the meaning of the word acting is to do, doing things, like moving a hand, finger or foot can be distracting to an audience.

Another meaning of the word acting is: to stir up, to set in motion. Emotion stirs people when it's clear what the intention is. Emotion becomes clear and affecting in stillness, not with movement or action. Stillness forewarns something is about to happen or points out that something has just happened.

Nevertheless, actors busy themselves moving their hands, fingers or their head; they shake their foot, or sway from side to side, pace, wiggle a pencil with their fingers or look around. And somewhere these actors feel that they are revealing their character's intention because of their actions.

If you are not aware of what you do, you should be. Each of these actions, are preventing your character's story from touching the audience, and perhaps, preventing you from landing the job.

Some actions are very appropriate and necessary to a character. My question is - do you know the difference between actions that enhance a character from those that detract from a character? And a follow-up question: do you realize the power of not doing anything? You must find out the answer to these questions to be a more effective actor.

Mark Twain said: "That impressive silence, that eloquent silence, that geometrically progressive silence which often achieves a desired effect where no combination of words howsoever felicitous (appropriate) could accomplish it."

There are specific times when stillness enhances your character and affects your audience, some examples are:

  1. Before a decision or revelation - Stillness here reveals thought or consideration about the decision.
  2. After a decision or revelation - Stillness shows doubt or rethinking.
  3. During confusion - Stillness tells that you are reorienting to the events.
  4. Before or after receiving bad or good news - Shows shock or surprise.
  5. After a discovery - See #4
  6. Trying to hold back emotion - This takes the audience into their own emotion. The real moment of being affected is just before the emotion flows.
The above are some of the moments that connect the audience to the character on a very personal level.

Strong character stories rise out of stillness.

"Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words?"
- Marcel Marceau


Be still now, and consider what you have read.
Bill Howey has taught acting since 1980. He's also written, directed, and produced three independent movies. His books include, "The Actor's Menu: A Character Preparation Handbook" www.actorsmenu.com. Visit his website www.billhowey.com for more information.

Copyright © Bill Howey. All rights reserved. Used with permission of the author. Not to be reproduced or distributed.
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