It's acting awards season, which means there are a lot of interviews of actors discussing how and why and in what way they created the characters for which they are nominated.  This particular video from the cast of Les Miserables caught my eye a bit ago:

In it, the actors discuss the thrill of singing “live”… that is, instead of pre-recording the songs, they sung while being filmed, with their acting and singing happening in the moment instead of in response to what they had recorded previously. This is very different from how most movie musicals are made. Typically, actors will come into a recording studio several months ahead of time and lay down the vocal tracks for their songs. Then, those songs are played back on set, and the actors lip sync while being filmed. As Hugh Jackman explains, this means that choices about characterization, emotionality, lyricism, and physicality have to be made ahead of time—before the actor is on set with his co-actors, in costume, and creating a scene.

All of the actors in this short clip discuss how freeing it was to sing “live” and how much better it was than having to conform to previously made choices. What’s interesting about this, of course, is that actors in the theatre always sing live. They are always making choices in the moment, each time they sing a song.  And Hugh Jackman, as a theatre actor first, has that experience.

My interest is: What does being “in the moment” allow an actor to do, psychologically, that he cannot do as a response to matching his previous enactment? What is the psychological benefit to singing “live?”

Critically, in a “live singing” scenario, an actor’s attention is less divided than it would otherwise be.  Instead of having to pay attention to the other actors, the camera, the set, his costumes AND his own singing, played back at him, singing live removes one of those distractions.

I would argue it actually removes the largest distraction—listening and reacting to yourself.  There are multitudes of studies in psychological research on the effects of being self-aware. Self-awareness affects almost every other response a person makes. For example, we ask personal questions about demographics (age, sex, educational level) at the end of studies to avoid priming participants to think about their gender or age or education while they complete the rest of a survey. Seeing yourself in a mirror can make you more anxious and self aware, and can increase negative emotions (it can also make you eat less). By being allowed to sing in the moment, the actor may find it easier to forget about himself and truly be in character—the goal of any actor. The self is removed from the equation.

And while individuals can increase their abilities to work through divided attention (you do get better at multitasking if you practice), in the end, no single task completed under divided attention is ever done as well as if it was completed with full attention. Paying full attention to acting, instead of reacting to previously made choices, may help actors act.

In addition, the modality in which you are paying attention also comes into play. Multitasking in different modalities (e.g. listening to music and cooking) is less difficult than multitasking in the same modality (e.g. listening to a television and having a conversation). Listening to yourself and enacting a character at the same time is probably a frustrating exercise in same modality multitasking. 

Finally, the more one of the multiple tasks can be done implicitly, that is, without conscious thought, the easier it is to multitask. Lessening the demands on the actor may allow him/her to "automatize" part of his/her acting and put conscious resources elsewhere. If actors can embody their characters without consciously thinking about it, then performances that involve many divides on their attention should become easier to create.

But going back to my premise of awards season: I am making a grand assumption—that when the performance is easier for the actor, it is a better performance from the point of view of the audience member. That is still a large, and unanswered, question. In the end, it may be that the simple fact of the actors’ enjoyment of singing live allowed them to act “better” from the point of view of the audience.  Future research will have to separate out these possibilities.

So, do fewer pulls on an actors’ attention and less self-awareness equal award winning performances? We’ll find out!

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