The value of silence

At Boomerang (a spoken word event too cool to have a webpage) this week there was a moment during her performance when Amy Leon stood at the microphone in silence for maybe a minute. The attention in the room was complete. This is mostly a result of her extraordinary magnetism and power. But it’s also a result of the extraordinary attention and involvement of the audience. She acknowledged the attention at the end of her performance.

There’s a lot of talk about the distractions of modern society, where there’s always some background activity masking what’s going on. At Boomerang you can bet that every audience member had a smartphone yet their ability to pay attention was the best it could be. Attention is a choice. And attention is a practice which takes work.

Silence is a part of performance, because it frames the action. In the same way that the walls of an art gallery are conventionally painted white, so as not to interfere with the artwork. And in the same way that each piece in an art gallery is conventionally given plenty of space on the wall. So that that art can project itself from the space. Silence is the space that frames each word, sentence or note. If there’s no silence to frame the words then they don’t stand out, they lose much of their significance.

In rehearsal, silence and attention are just as important as in performance. The lines lose their meaning if they are presented against a background of inattention and chatter. How can actors rehearse the meaning of the scene if they get no feedback of attention?

Attention is also important for people not involved in the scene being rehearsed, because you can learn from watching other people rehearse. You can see what they are doing well and emulate that. You can see what they do badly and avoid that. And you can think of the things that they omit and learn what you would add to the performance.