In our modern age, silence is a rare thing. The soundtrack of our lives is cluttered with music, chatter, and electronic hums. Even now, sitting in an empty office I listen to the hum of my computer, the clicking of my keys, and the occasional car zoom by. Theatre reflects this aspect of life. Music covers the dark lulls between scenes. Theatre is filled with words and sound. But what happens when there is silence on stage? I see two types of silence, purposeful and accidental silence.
Accidental silences often mark when something has gone wrong. As a stage manager, these are the moments I dread. A dropped line, stunning actors into silence until they find their way back to the script. A missed cue, leaving the stage lit with no one on it. The silence of a broken prop, the silence of the illusion shattering. When I call shows, I memorize the rhythm of the sounds. I am half in my book, half watching the stage. But listening, I can hear both the headset and the stage. Sometimes accidental silences are only known to the crew. Being so familiar with how the show is meant to go, I notice the smallest silences. Often, these go unnoticed by the audience. But from time to time, these silences are so sudden or long enough that the audience begins to squirm in their seats. The illusion is shattered and they become aware they are watching a show.
But silence can also be a very powerful tool when it is used on purpose. One of the most powerful acting moment I have ever seen was silence. William Hutt, sat onstage for almost a minute in silence before sighing. The sign broke the tension and the entire audience broke out laughing. Silence builds tension. It can be used for comedic or suspenseful moments. In the middle of a huge fight, silence can mark the moment before everything changes. In that silence, the audience feels the tension, unsure what will happen in the next moment.
Silence also gives the audience a chance to contemplate what is happening from the character’s viewpoint.
Too many silences, and the show will drag. So it’s important to chose where silence is. Sometimes the script will indicate a necessary silence, but the actor and director can find their own moments.