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  • Writer's pictureLin Sagovsky

Don’t Look Here!

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

eye contact

I trained to act at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and I was taught by an ageing Prussian named Rudi Shelly. He was a real guru of the theatre, and everyone who trained at that School during a span of several decades is prone to quoting Rudi’s mantras – of which there were many – in a bad imitation of his Prussian accent.

We used to complain about him going on and on drumming rules of stagecraft into us… But of course, years later it’s those mantras that sit on your shoulder and jabber in your ear, because they were actually Priceless Words of Wisdom.

As arrogant young students we couldn’t see it, but out in the profession years later, any BOVTS alumni of a certain era will almost certainly tell you that when it came to his mantras about stagecraft, Rudi Was Right.

Rudi couldn’t remember anyone’s name properly, so he called everyone – male or female – ‘Ducky’. And one of his favourite mantras was to point to the floor and, enunciating clearly, ask you:

“Ducky, what does it say down there? It says ‘Don’t Look Here’. If you look there, Ducky, you drop the whole bloody scene on the floor.”

What he meant, of course, was that the moment you allow your eyeline to drop, your energy goes with it.

Connecting with your audience – and staying connected – is largely about what’s going on in your eyes.

In medieval times they actually believed in a beam emanating from the eyes, and you’ve probably heard the expression ‘the eyes are the windows of the soul. Different cultures may have different expectations about making eye contact, but in the Western world, we're encouraged - right or wrong - to make instant judgements based on what’s happening in people’s eyes.

So if you get up to make a presentation and you drop your eyes to the floor, even if it’s only for a nano-second, you ‘drop the whole bloody scene’.  In that instant, your connection with your audience drains like water into sand – and you may have a hard job picking that energy up again.

So where should you look?

Well… at us.

Now that doesn’t mean that you try to stare into the eyes of a dozen or fifty or several hundred individuals. It means you create the illusion of establishing eye contact with every individual in the audience, and you don’t leave anyone out – not even the people sitting to the side of you. You need to include them, and the people at the back, and the people at the front, and the people in the middle.

What you need to practise, therefore, is ‘placing’.

That means moving your eye contact around – not in a random manner, but in a way that underpins the sense of your message by ‘placing’ each thought to a different part of the audience. Imagine you’re throwing the beam out from your eyes to connect with…

…someone in the middle for this bit…

…someone at the back for the next bit…

… a ‘spray’ over one side for the bit after that…

…an individual or two in the front row for the jokey bit that comes next…

You get the idea.

It takes practice, and it’s partly about rhythm.

What it’s NOT is playing ‘pingpong’ with your eye contact – i.e, getting locked into alternating your attention between the same two points throughout what you have to say.

When that happens, it’s often an unconscious attempt to impress whomever you perceive to be the most important individual in the audience. So you’re constantly flicking away to somewhere neutral (as you suppose), then back again to check on the ‘VIP’ reaction. It quickly gets tiresome for everyone else – and potentially embarrassing for that individual, depending on the intensity of your gaze.

So strive to be egalitarian with where you’re looking. Remember that every single moment, from the instant you stand up, is about putting your attention out there. You are there for them. If your eyes flick to the floor, we instantly read that your attention is on yourself and that you are worried about where to stand and how to begin.

Carry your intention in your eyes. You’re there to give us a present…


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