As an actor, you’ve heard it before: Your body is your instrument. But it’s a cliche for a reason—it’s true. Just as a guitar player or bassoonist needs to constantly fine-tune their instrument, you need to do the same. Here, we break down everything you should know about body language exercises for actors—the best ones, as well as what they achieve and why they’re necessary in the first place to enhance your acting skills.
Body language is the most evocative form of communication after verbal speech. You can learn so much about what’s going on inside based on what’s being externalized. Think about how tabloid magazines often enlist a “body language expert” to analyze a photo of a will-they-won’t-they celebrity couple. However legit (or not) that person’s expertise may be, it is true that there are many tells when it comes to dynamic-based body language.
By that same reasoning, think about how much an audience can pick up about a character based on the actor’s body language. You can relay subconscious information about your role without saying a word. These exercises will put you in touch with your body and make you more aware of what you’re conveying to the outside world. They can help you tap into the physicality of your character so that you can understand them inside and out.
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There are a multitude of nonverbal communication activities, and you will likely pick up a new one from every class you take, every director you work with, and every fellow actor you meet. Each performer is different and may have their own exercise they swear by. Here are just a few to explore.
- Gait exercise: How a character walks is especially telling; it is literally how they move through the world. An individual’s gait can also vary depending on how they’re feeling at the moment: invigorated, defeated, full of dread, excited, confident, etc. Try out different walking styles to reflect the person you’re playing, both in general and at specific moments in the story. Experiment with taking longer and shorter steps, where your eye level is pointed, pacing, whether your character likes to receive attention, and so on.
- The seven microexpressions: These facial expressions comprise fear, anger, contempt, disgust, sadness, happiness, and surprise. How well can you convey these small, involuntary reactions without saying a word?
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- Good listener/bad listener: You’ll need a partner for this one. Tell them a story about anything; their role is to be an attentive listener, whatever that means to them. After the story is through, repeat the exercise, but your partner’s goal is to now be a terrible listener. Switch roles so each side can express what “good listener” and “bad listener” means to them, solely using body language.
- Subtext a scene: Act out a scene in which your character says one thing but their body language says another. Here’s an example: Your character says they are completely happy about their ex getting remarried, but their eyes are directed at the floor and their shoulders are lowered.
- Write the gestures: This one is actually a writing exercise, but it will still come in handy when constructing a performance. Write out a short scene between two characters who have an entire conversation using only their bodies.
It’s hard to quantify “good” body language, as it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish and say about your character. However, here are a few general tips and tricks to help you become one with your body and whatever it’s trying to communicate.
- Understand space: How a person maneuvers themselves is huge—how much they “own” the area around them, how much room they put between themselves and another person, how much space they utilize, etc.
- Know your character’s “launch” or “power stance”: Even if you’re playing a meek character, it’s important to know what stance they would assume to feel powerful. This knowledge can help you decipher and respond to your scene partners’ own stances.
- Purposeful gazing: You can be giving your all physically, but if you’re dead behind the eyes, there is only so much heavy lifting your extremities can do. Practice purposeful gazing by maintaining eye contact when you are speaking and being spoken to. Be intentional about where you’re looking—and where you’re directing your attention—at all times.