The Eyes Have It
published in Dramatics Magazine, November 2011
When I was a boy, I took boxing lessons. This was at a time when boxing was still a mainstream sport: colleges had boxing teams, and boys in my hometown of Washington, D.C. would hang around Goldie’s Gym and learn how to make the left jab, the right cross, the uppercut, and, when they had more experience, Kid Gavilan’s famous bolo punch.
What I learned from my boxing lessons, however, was not punching so much as seeing. We were taught to train our eyes fiercely upon our opponent, to scan his every muscle and every twitch, and try to figure out the strategies that lay behind every shift of his head and target of his gaze. We were trained to make decisions by the millisecond: to “hit him when he blinks” and throw the right cross at just the moment his left hand started to droop. The most important muscles in boxing, we discovered, were not in the upper arms but the eye sockets.
It’s the same in acting. Like boxing, drama is based in conflict. And while that conflict rarely escalates to actual fisticuffs, it almost always involves characters engaging in actions that seek to force, persuade, or seduce other human beings into doing things they would otherwise not do. Taking these actions, however, initially involves a moment-to-moment examination of the behavior of those persons who have become the target of the character’s interest. And that’s where the eyes become crucial. Whether characters are trying to capture one another’s affections (as with Romeo and Juliet), or defeat one another in an argument (as Cassius with Brutus), or persuade another character to reverse course (as Lady Macbeth does with her husband), the actors playing these roles, if they are to act convincingly, must be seen by the audience as continuously trying to penetrate the mind of the other character, so as to adjust their own efforts and tactics accordingly. When that happens, the actor uses his or her eyes exactly as a boxer does—to hunt out another person’s intentions, defenses, desires, and fears.
Nor does the boxer use his eyes merely to perceive the incipient actions of his opponent. He also uses them to intimidate. The darting glare of Rocky Graziano and the ferocious gaze of Rocky Marciano conveyed images of unconquerable strength associated with the champions’ adopted names (both were actually named Rocco). The goofy, cockeyed smile of Muhammad Ali, when he floated “like a butterfly” and mockingly circled his bedraggled opponents, dared them to step into a flurry of punches. Our eyes are both perceptive and aggressive: tools that help us not merely see what lies before us but to change what we see.
Seeing is therefore purposeful, not passive. We read people’s intentions by interpreting what we see them seeing. We make eye contact with them to assess their sincerity and evaluate their emotional commitment to the words that come out of their mouths. Famous studies stress the importance of eye contact in job interviews, and experiments clearly reveal that applicants who engage in it are rated as “more alert, assertive, dependable, confident, responsible, and possessing greater initiative” than candidates who are seen as “looking down their noses” or acting “shifty-eyed.” Indeed, as British director (and prominent acting theorist) Declan Donnellan puts it, “Acting is a question of what we see. For the actor, we are what we see.”
Thus what actors do with their eyes characterizes their roles. When truly engaging with the other characters in the play—that is, when anticipating, judging, admiring, scaring, attracting, dismissing, and penetrating them—an actor’s eyes, and the way she employs them, will tell us as much or more about her character as does her costume, makeup, diction, accent, movements, and, in many cases, even her words. For, as in life, the way we look at people may tell us about them, but it also tells others about us.
Human evolution has given our species a gaze that is particularly easy to read and interpret. “Humans wear the mark of their shared intentionality,” explains developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello, by “a small but significant feature—the whites of their eyes, which are three times larger than those of any other primate, presumably to help others follow the direction of gaze. Indeed, chimps infer the direction of gaze by looking at another’s head, but infants do so by watching the eyes.”
Yet strangely, the most common problem we see among inexperienced actors is that they tend to perform with glassy, vacant eyes, saying their lines with eyelids half-closed and a gaze focused on the floor or out into empty space. If they were boxers, they would be lying on the mat in the first ten seconds of the bout. If they were seeking a job, they would be shown the door. And when they are playing characters, the audience will have a hard time not falling asleep—for if the play’s characters don’t feel it necessary to look at what’s happening around them, why should we? As Stanislavsky said, “Empty eyes are the mirror of an empty soul… It is important that an actor’s eyes, his gaze, his glance, reflect the size, the depth of his creative mind.”
If drama is to be dramatic, its characters must be seeking change in the characters they confront. Dramatic characters seek to attain goals, avoid catastrophes, and resolve conflicts with and through other people. Their eyes must be creative, searching, proactive. They must be looking and not just seeing, looking for solutions to what’s troubling, for the subtle clues and tactics that can help them win their battles ahead—whether in war, in love, in ambition, or in debate. If they don’t, the audience will lose all interest in whether they succeed or fail in these tasks, and start studying the scenery instead.
When I am asked to appraise an actor’s performance, I of course listen very closely to his or her voice, phrasings, and inflections. I try to get inside the actor’s head to sense the thoughts and feelings that I imagine lie behind the mask of the character he or she is portraying. But the most important single thing I look at is the eyes. On whom or what are they focused? Whom or what are they trying to penetrate? What are they looking for? What are they hoping to find out? Of whom or what are they frightened?
And, equally crucial: what are they trying to make the characters around them feel when they gaze at them? For eyes are not just receivers, they are aggressors: weapons that can kill, lures that can attract. Shakespeare, an actor before he became a playwright, gives us many examples of this. Hamlet describes his father’s gaze as “an eye like Mars, to threaten and command.” Henry V tells his troops at Agincourt to “Lend the eye a terrible aspect: let it pry through the portage of the head like the brass cannon.” Iago entices Cassio to seek Desdemona’s aid by telling him, “What an eye she has! Methinks it sounds a parley of provocation.”
When an actor truly searches for something in another person, the audience will search along with her. When she seeks to motivate (threaten, entice) another character with her sharply focused gaze, the audience knows what she’s doing and will root for her. But when her eyes are simply drifting into space, or focusing idly in the middle distance, her performance will lose the impetus, desire, and forward thrust that make drama dramatic.
Moreover, the intense, purposeful gaze of an actor does not merely stimulate the audience, it stimulates the emotions (fear, attraction, excitement, anticipation) of the other actors on the stage. Linda Alper, a longtime actor at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, remembers going nearly insane with frustration doing a scene with an actor during a long summer season. “I felt he was never truly in the scenes with me. During one performance, however, everything changed: subtle cues were picked up and our scene really rocked. When we got offstage, I complimented him, and he told me that for the first time he was wearing his contact lenses on stage. I suggested he continue to do so in our remaining performances, but he decided not to, and our scenes never again approached the magical, subtle chemistry they had reached that evening.”
Why do actors fail to look in the way boxers look: seeking ways to win their character’s objectives, goals, and victories? Perhaps out of fear that actually looking purposefully at a fellow actor will make them forget their next line. Or that by delving too deeply into emotional conflict with—or attraction to—other actors on stage with them, they might fall out of character. Or they may deliberately close their eyes (physically or figuratively), with the notion that they are displaying the “action” of “reflecting” on their character’s current situation, or even summoning up some event in their personal lives to stimulate their emotions, as Stanislavsky and Lee Strasberg proposed at various times under the rubrics of “affective memory” or “emotional recall.” Such reveries on stage are rarely successful, and Stanislavsky more or less repudiated these notions in his later writings.
Often this “refusal to look” is utterly unconscious. I once directed a student actor who, while very handsome and well-spoken, would literally close his eyes during the first word or two of every speech he gave. I pointed this out to him several times, but he adamantly denied doing it—until I trained a video camera on him and played back his performance. He was stunned, but still had difficulty kicking this obviously ingrained habit.
Looking doesn’t mean staring, however. Indeed, the fixed stare is as much an indication of lifelessness as the vacant stare, each implying that the character is dead or, worse, “dead behind the eyes.” When we are actively looking at an object instead of just staring at it, our eyes are in constant motion as they scan the object under investigation. This is not a fluid process such as, for instance, panning a movie camera. Rather, our eyes scan an object in a rapid sequence of jerky eyeball movements, which can shift our focus several times a second from one spot to another. These shifts—which we are rarely consciously aware of—are called saccades. Regulated by our unconsciously operating autonomic nervous system, these lightning-fast eyeball movements can happen as frequently as every twenty milliseconds (that is to say, up to fifty times a second); they are, in fact, the fastest movements made by the human body. Collectively, saccades send a series of micro-images to our brains, which assemble them into the overall pattern that we think we see as a complete image. What we actually see, however, is a constantly changing and infinitely complex mosaic. Our eyes orchestrate a mental pointillism that continuously compiles thousands of tiny visual fragments into what is very like a Georges Seurat painting.
The reason saccades are necessary for human sight is simple: our eyes can focus only on a tiny point in the center of each retina. Called the fovea, this point is a dense concentration of those image receptors (rods and cones) that are uniquely able to distinguish details. If you focus steadily at a single word on a printed line of text, for example, you’ll immediately realize you can make out at most one word to its left and one word to its right. All the other words to the left or right, above or below the line, will be in your peripheral vision, blurred beyond readability until your nervous system autonomically initiates a saccade to capture them. Reading is therefore an action of jerkily shifting your focus from one tiny group of letters to another, several times a second. This process, known as foveation, is the main eye movement of our wakeful life. It takes place all the time, even in the rapid eye movement that occurs when we dream. And there’s yet another eye movement, equally unconscious, that partners with foveation: this is convergence, which causes us to refocus each individual eye relative to its partner when a saccade shifts our gaze to something that is either closer to or farther away from us. Also controlled autonomically, convergence is essential for us to retain the stereoscopic unity and three-dimensionality of the subject viewed. So when actors (or boxers) are truly engaged in searching for something, instead of just blankly staring at objects because they’ve been told by their coaches or directors to do so, their eyes are continuously, and autonomically, foveating and converging.
So why are these unconscious activities important to know about? Because the audience—and our acting partners—can see us do them.
When an actor’s eyes are foveating and converging, he is seen as, in the currently popular term of the trade, “being in the moment.” These autonomic ocular activities are not consciously learned. They cannot be taught us, and they cannot be willed or faked by us. They are instinctual. They are part of our evolutionary history—almost all mammals foveate, just as we do. These natural, unconscious movements of the eyes show that we are alive: we are curious, we are eager to succeed, we are afraid to fail, or to be hurt. Being alive on stage is the most important single characteristic of the great actor.
How do we recognize this physical phenomenon that most of us have never heard about? Except for those who have studied ophthalmology, few of us will have encountered the word “foveation.” But we have been experiencing and witnessing it from our first weeks on earth. The actors opposite you can tell immediately when you aren’t foveating (though they won’t call it that—they would say that your eyes “seem dead”), and so too can a theatre or film audience. Stanislavsky’s famous dictum that the actor must “live the role on stage” thus requires foveating onstage as much as it demands words coming out of your mouth and blood pumping through your arteries. Indeed, acting requires the visible autonomic behaviors of the characters if they are to be thought of as living creatures. And how do you foveate, since it is unconscious? Simply by looking intently for what you can find out about the other characters that will help you win your character’s goals. This is the basic reason why purposeful seeing, searching, and hunting down clues are what an audience must observe in the actor’s eyes if his or her performance is to be credible and convincing.
One might think actors would be concerned about this, but that is rarely the case. Beginning actors often wonder what they should do with their hands, but rarely about what they should do with their eyes. Formal actor training in Western theatre rarely addresses eye focus or eye movement. Indeed, prior to Stanislavsky there was almost no mention of actors’ eyes in writings on acting, and while the great Russian master popularized “eye contact” between actors, he did so mainly as a staging technique that would override the traditional style of nineteenth-century star actors, who generally stood center stage and faced the audience instead of the other characters.
Eye contact is now commonly taught to beginning actors, specifically as an encouragement to look directly into the eyes of their scene partners. But all too often it is taught as looking at rather than looking into. Characters in conflict—and what is drama without conflict?—do not merely passively observe those around them. They actively study the breathing patterns, movements, grimaces, tics, and blushes of the characters that surround them on the stage. They look to see what the other characters are looking at, what they are reaching for, what they are trying to do with their hands, feet, postures, gestures, grimaces. This eye exploration is proactive. It means looking for cues and clues, opportunities and dangers, overt and covert signifiers.
When eye contact is continuous between two characters in a dangerous situation (and most truly dramatic situations are, or should be, considered dangerous), the eyes are every bit as important as the words. Imagine the famous “Queen’s closet scene” in Hamlet, where Hamlet comes into his mother’s bedchamber after confirming the King’s guilt in murdering Hamlet’s father. The stakes are life-or-death from beginning to end: Gertrude is terrified that Hamlet is about to kill her, while Hamlet, having just stopped himself from murdering the King, murders a spy behind the arras—a spy who turns out to be Polonius. The dialogue is filled with raging accusations, urgent interrogations, and a divine invocation (“by the rood”). The physical action, which includes the slaying of Polonius and Hamlet (in most productions) throwing his mother on the bed and ripping a cameo picture from her neck, is relentlessly intense. None of the characters believes the words they hear are truthful: if there is any truth for them to discover, they know they can find it only with their eyes. Were this a real-life series of actions, neither Gertrude nor Hamlet would dare take their eyes off each other for a second, even to blink.
But how does an actor, not him- or herself threatened with murder, stop from blinking? Our autonomic nervous system, or ANS, helps us out here. Whenever you sneeze, your eyes close; it is simply impossible to keep them open. But if, just as you’re just about to sneeze while driving down a winding two-lane highway, another car suddenly races towards you from the opposite direction, your ANS will automatically stifle that sneeze, and the blink that would have accompanied it. Evolution has provided us with an unconscious mechanism that suppresses sneezing and blinking when we are genuinely terrified by an attacking force.
So how do great actors create a sense of “genuine terror” that manipulates their autonomic nervous systems and suppresses eye blinks while performing actions dangerous to their characters but not themselves? Terror comes from not knowing what will happen next, but actors in performance do know what will happen next, since they have, of course, read and rehearsed (and in most cases performed) their scenes many times. The best answer is a simple one: actors engage their ANS by looking squarely in the eyes of the other actor. Not of the other character, because the character’s lines—and future—have already been determined by the play’s author, and his or her physical actions have been staged by the production’s director. But only the other actor is thinking the thoughts that lie behind his or her eyes. You can’t know these thoughts—and you don’t. So you look at that actor and realize what’s in his or her mind at this moment is completely unknown to you.
To the actor playing Hamlet, therefore, the mind of the actor playing Gertrude is a source of infinite mystery. To the actor playing Gertrude, the mind of the actor playing Hamlet is equally unknowable. This will be true even if the actors have known each other all their lives, since written characters are permanently predetermined while actors, being human, are infinitely inscrutable and enigmatic.
If the actors can plunge into the profound mystery of their fellow actors’ minds, therefore, their own autonomic responses will be generated. Thus the actor’s eyes—like those of the boxer—will slow or even stop their blink rate for the duration of critical moments. And the spectators will willingly suspend their disbelief, watching the action as if—like a boxing match—it were unrehearsed and taking place for the first time.
Eye contact is not solely eye-to-eye. It is also eye-to-body. The actress playing Gertrude will certainly look at actor-Hamlet’s eyes, but also at his hands and the sword he holds in them, the raised arch of his eyebrows, and the baring of his teeth. She will be assessing his skin color (is his face reddening? Turning pale?), his breathing (is he panting? Gasping? Holding his breath?), and the blood pulsing visibly in his neck. None of this requires conscious thinking; we have been reading these clues at least since kindergarten and probably much earlier (“What’s making my mom so sad?” we asked ourselves when we were three). For her part, Gertrude will be darting her eyes to the arras, behind which she knows Polonius lurks, as well as back to Hamlet to make sure he doesn’t see her looking at the arras, and she’ll be glancing at the door to see if any servant outside has heard the argument they’re having (particularly her cry to “set those to you that can speak”). Plus, she’s wildly checking out any possible escape route she might take if Hamlet should actually raise his sword, while at the same time trying to hide the fact that she’s planning such an escape. The only “seeing” that Gertrude will not be doing, most likely, is that which Hamlet has asked her to: she will not be using a metaphorical mirror to “see the inmost part” of herself.
Likewise, the actor-Hamlet is scouring the actress-Gertrude for reciprocal clues. He asks himself, “Is she blushing? Repentant? Frightened? Have I finally turned her mind against the King? Why are her eyes darting around the room? Why is she looking at the arras? How much loyalty does she have towards my father?” And his big, unasked question: “Did you have sex with my uncle before he murdered my father?” Trying to find the answers to these questions while playing this scene can only be achieved through the actors’ eyes. No character will get straight answers from the other in words alone. Each needs, like Othello, ocular proof.
It is an important truth about acting, and a rarely realized one, that you act not just with your voice and your body and your emotions and ideas, but with your eyes. Eyes that seek answers to your character’s questions, and victories for your character’s goals; eyes that penetrate the other actors on the stage; eyes that create the living energy of the dramatic action; eyes that enhance the conviction and authority of the performances, the sharpness and edginess of the characters, the engagement and empathy of the audience, and the increasing momentum of the play itself.
The eyes become both the defensive and offensive weapons of the actor’s character. They mirror the soul, yes, but they also reveal the characters’ minds and propel the dramatists’ actions. Because as Muhammad Ali said, quite famously:
Float like a butterfly.
Sting like a bee.
Your hands can’t hit
What your eyes can’t see.