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  • Writer's pictureLouise Carnachan


For a performer, there is nothing quite as rewarding as hearing snuffles and seeing audience members wipe away tears as the lights go up. “Nailed it!” I thought holding the hand of my scene partner for our bow. Later, I was approached by an actor with whom I’d worked in the past. After congratulating me, he said, “Your facial expressions at the end were amazing. How did you know how to move your face that way? Did you use a mirror to rehearse?” All the reasons why this guy was a misery to perform with came rushing back. “I wasn’t paying attention to my face, I was listening to my scene partner and responding,” I answered with some asperity.


Actors are obligated to deliver the playwright’s words but how is left to the director and the performers. You’ve probably watched stilted performances in which an actor is mentally absent until they hear their cue. The most memorable productions have spontaneous give and take between players. The fellow I referred to would determine his every vocal pitch and move before we started rehearsals. No matter what you threw at him, he never varied his response. It was mind-numbing to be in a scene with him. In an effort to control all variables, he wanted me to deliver my lines by rote so he wouldn’t be distracted by anything new. I’d refused and it ticked him off.  


If you’ve ever prepared for a conversation to the point that you’ve anticipated what the other person will say, you’ve probably had the experience of being startled when they say something different. Or perhaps you’ve been on the other side, and someone incorrectly predicted your responses. It’s maddening and doesn’t add to rapport or being understood. Ideally, information is taken in before a response is offered. A conversation needs to breathe and flow.


I have no issue with being prepared or rehearsing. However, I don’t want to be so practiced as to lose the impromptu nature of a dialog and the opportunity for deeper exchange. If you wonder what the right balance might be, here are some strategies.


  • Rehearse the opening words of a difficult conversation. Knowing how you’ll start can give you some security and calm your nerves. But if the words aren’t right in the moment, let them go.

  • Think through the points you absolutely want to convey and write them down so you don’t lose track. Use bullet points, not a word by word script.

  • Don’t become wedded to your imaginary version of the conversation. The higher the stakes and the more you’ve thought about it, you’ll probably predict the other person’s response. Just don’t get so tied up in your story that you aren’t in the present.

  • Balance the air time; you should be speaking about half the time. If it’s a lot more or a lot less, the conversation is unbalanced.

  • Keep your attention on the other. If you lose track of your own message because you’ve been listening well, don’t worry—that’s why you have bullet points to refer to.

  • Be ready to pivot. It’s possible that what you have prepared will become irrelevant because the conversation takes you somewhere else.


A person who has their own agenda is someone who is “on message” to the exclusion of all else. It’s fine to be clear about what you wish to convey but communication is ineffective if you ignore the other person’s responses. Pay attention to words, voice tone, and body language—that should inform what you say next.


People who choose not to listen on stage or in life are challenging. Yet, I know I could pay closer attention and maybe you could, too. There’s always room to spiff up skills. Let’s give more notice to the other person and less to our own desire to be in charge of the conversation, okay?

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