Crossing the line and creating tension
It’s the invisible line that is crossed whenever tension fills the room. Social customs, manners, etiquette, and acceptable behavior all stack up, just on the inside of that line. Whenever this line is crossed, whenever this boundary is breached, everyone in earshot is aware. Like in the old west, it is the moment the gunfighter stands up and flips his jacket back revealing his six-shooter. Someone has a problem with something, and it’s going to need to be addressed. The room gets thick with anticipation. What is going to happen next?
These lines and boundaries follow us where ever we go. They are always present. Every conscious person is hyper aware of them. When I say hyper aware, I mean just that. I’ll give you a few examples:
You’re at a baby shower. There are lots of moms and lots of kids. One of the kids starts crying and one of the other moms, a guest, snaps, “SHUT UP!” Think about how the mood in the room would change.
You’re at a party. A few couples are standing around talking. One of the women starts to tell a story and her boyfriend says, “You’re not going to talk about how great your ex-husband was in bed, again, are you?” Imagine being one of the other couples.
You’re having dinner at a friend’s house. The wife is speaking and her husband gently interrupts her with, “Honey, you’ve been talking non-stop. Why don’t you give it a rest and enjoy this great meal you cooked?” A friendly reminder but imagine how awkward the next moments might be.
You’re standing in line to buy something in a clothing store. The guy in front of you addresses the cashier saying,“Why are all you people who work here Chinese? Is the owner Chinese?” It might be a fair question but perhaps inappropriate?
In each example no one was physically hurt. There were varying degrees of irritation present, but the amount of tension it creates can be gut wrenching at times. Why? Why does the air get so thick in these moments? Why doesn’t the same thing happen as easily in a scene in class or on stage in a play? Why doesn’t the air get just as thick for an audience? Far more horrible a thing is said in scenes, yet that thick air of “being in the wrong place at the wrong time” never seems to be present. Why is that?
In real life, society’s lines and boundaries are always present. They are a given. When you act, unless you impose them and are hyper aware of them, they do not exist. Poof! They disappear. There is no line to cross; no boundary to breach. The reason they disappear is because deep down the actor knows there will be no real consequence for their actions on stage. There are no real ramifications or repercussions. The actor will be able to be as mean, as rude, as cutting, as inappropriate as they want to be, and the worst thing that will happen will be the other actors pretending to be scared or hurt. The air never gets thick. The audience never feels that same tension they would feel in life. There is only one way to create these moments of real, palpable, tension. You have to impose the same penalties on your actions you would encounter in life. You have to take responsibility for crossing the line as you would in life.
In life, there is a funny little thing that happens to you when you’re about to cross a line. You realize you are about to breach some etiquette, some form of social order. You are aware that you are about to hijack the current situation and divert it. It’s a brazen move and you know deep down once you make this move, things may change forever. You may never be able to go home again. But you don’t care. The thing you need to do next has become more important. You push away from the table and stand up. You flip your coat back, exposing a gun in its holster. The air gets heavy and the tension is thick. Things are about to radically change and you’re willing to suffer the consequences.
Tension can’t be acted. Tension needs to be provoked. It needs to be prodded. Impose the same standards on your character as you do on yourself. Most people hate confrontations. When they are pushed to the point of having to confront, you can always feel their distaste for having been put in the position. As an actor you must “own” the responsibility of what it means when you push away from the table and stand up. You must always feel the weight of the potential consequence. The toughest guys in the world get nervous before a fight. Because the consequence is real and they know they’ll have to live with it.
Actors need to make their work more personal. The more personal it is, the more sensitive you become to the material. The more sensitive you are to the material, the more likely you are to be honestly provoked. This is how we get everyone who is watching completely involved. This is how the air thickens up.
Between the words “Action” and “Cut!” you want to be the type of actor who takes it all very personally. You want to be the actor everyone else is a little intimidated to work with. Other actors are intimidated because when you go at them and complain or criticize or chastise, you never go easy. Your comments seem more caustic, your criticisms more hurtful. It’s because you actually seem to mean everything you say. It’s not the way you read your lines; it’s more than that. It’s as though you actually believe every thing you’re saying and worse still, you mean it.
This may seem obvious to you but most actors don’t confront the same way they do in life. It doesn’t bear the same weight. It doesn’t accept the same responsibility. Most actors shoot rubber bullets when they act. They only pretend to hurt the other person but deep down, they don’t actually mean it. They’re not trying to affect the other character the same way they would in life. They never really feel threatening and they’re about as scary as Halloween.
I was directing a show once. I was sitting in the front row and at my feet, lying there dead asleep, was my dog Luke. He was a Lab/Dane mix and his official title was “Luke the theater dog.” I was working one of those tense type scenes. The actors were trying it different ways, yelling, threatening, etc. We had a talk about real tension and how we actually create it. On the next run, the actor dropped right into the groove, and in an even tone, went at the other guy. The air immediately turned thick. I noticed my dog woke up. He lifted his head and watched for a moment, then quickly and quietly left the theater. Luke felt the air shift in the room and it woke him from a deep slumber. He woke up and wanted no part of it and Luke was not easily fooled. He had seen it all.
If you want to create tension, you need to pull the gloves off when you act. The other actor needs to believe you have crossed the acting line and are actually taking him to school, the woodshed, or to task in front of an audience and with no holds barred. You may have been friends before the curtain went up, and you may be grabbing a beer after, but right now you’re giving your friend the business, and he’s feeling it all the way down to the soles of his shoes.
Actors need to take the responsibility of making the other actor actually feel the thing they want them to feel. Go for it. Own you’re argument and make sure the other actor feels the sharp edge of your point. You do it in life. Do the same thing when you act.
Remember, creating tension is never a result of volume. It is when intention clashes with the order of things. Make sure your character is as aware of lines and boundaries the same way you are in life. Be hyper aware when you cross them and you’ll create tension. Just like you do in real life.