I was very fortunate to attend Wilfrid Laurier University at a time when Dr. Leslie O’Dell arranged to have Janet Wright direct a play starring Ted Follows. He was supported by a gaggle of undergrads.
I had a fairly minor part and didn’t interact too often with Mr. Follows on- or off-stage; even so, he provided me with one of the most important acting lessons I ever received and, I am willing to guess, he probably didn’t even do it consciously.
I still remember the moment quite clearly. I was a minor character, amongst a crowd of supporting characters and not directly involved in the central action but nevertheless a participant, and Mr. Follows made wordless eye-contact with me.
With that one look, he not only made me feel important as an actor and character, he also added depth to our characters’ relationship, he drew me into the scene, and, as a result, he spurred me to give more. With one simple look, I was transformed from a self-moving prop to a living person. Hegel would approve.
Ever since that moment, as an actor, writer, and director, I’ve have been acutely aware of the power and importance of eye-contact on-stage — with or without words.
For example, I was in a large ensemble piece once when another actor and I inadvertently created an unscripted relationship and story between our two characters because we both knew we could always look to each other for non-verbal communication and interaction. And this happened without any discussion whatsoever. It simply happened because we were both looking to connect and communicate even when we weren’t speaking lines. Sure, only one or two folks in the audience would have explicitly picked up on the relationship but it enriched the on-stage dynamic and our performances. It made for better theatre.
Regrettably, I have never been able to incorporate this behavior into my day-today living. I rarely make eye-contact with strangers and I have a hard time holding eye-contact, even with folks I know and care about. I can hold a person’s gaze in character in a way that I can’t do as myself. It’s difficult to describe but looking openly into someone’s open gaze actually feels physically unmanageable and overwhelming — like the feeling of watching the river from close proximity, as it tumbles over the Niagara falls.
I also suspect — rather, I should say, I know — it is a preemptive self-defense mechanism. Somewhere along the way I learned that one way to avoid conflict and trouble is simply to avoid engagement and there is nothing more engaging than eye-contact. It’s a theme that has even turned up in my poetry: if no one moves, if everyone sits perfectly still, no one will be hurt.
It occurred to me today, after reading Nadine’s post about a shared experience, that the strategy actually doesn’t work. The baddies, the crazies, the conflict, the trouble will come whether eye-contact is made or not. Eye-contact isn’t the problem it’s the baddies looking for trouble and if they want trouble with me, it won’t matter if I look them in the eye or not. Moreover, even if this strategy did work, the cost of avoiding the occasional upsetting moment is too great — missing out on all those great unscripted relationships that might have started with one open look.
Case in point: the only reason I was with Nadine at yesterday’s very enjoyable Voices of Venus poetry reading is because Jessica, the talented headliner, looked over her shoulder a few months ago, made eye-contact, and smiled at a stranger as we both entered the Elmdale Tavern to catch some theatre — an unexpected and rewarding friendship that began with one friendly look.