There is a helpful tool in acting called a “gap.” Mark Paladini, one of my acting professors at Regent University, taught the theory and practice of gaps to me. Mark discovered the gap in Robert McKee’s book on storytelling entitled, Story. While McKee describes how to write gaps into plays and screenplays, Mark describes it from the actor’s point of view. This one simple acting tool has changed the way I score scripts as both an actor and director. I would like to share the concept with you and then make a connection between how this tool of acting can be used on stage and in our everyday lives: namely in our relations with those we know and love on Facebook.
I define the gap as a moment of unbalance: a moment when something unexpected takes place. Imagine this: a man is walking down a sidewalk. He spots, on the other side of the street, a beautiful woman. The woman is not looking at him . . . until she is. The man feels the woman’s eyes on his face, his body, the way the sunlight plays with the highlights in his hair, and he reacts by nonchalantly puffing out his chest. He stands a little bit straighter. He checks his brand new watch while a ray of sunshine flashes across its face revealing both his good taste and the fact that he is a man of means who can afford such jewelry. Things are going well. Then, at the height of his glorious strut he clumsily trips on a crack in the sidewalk. [GAP]
In the moment directly following the trip the “gap” opens up: the gap is the moment between when he trips and the moment in which he restores his balance (not his literal balance but his figurative balance). Inside the gap the man has to make an active choice. He has to make a decision about how he will move from confidence (before the trip) to a restored confidence (after the trip).
For example, inside the gap the man can choose to look behind him at the crack in the sidewalk, showing outrage at the city workers who allowed the crack to rise up and trip him! Then, he could glance at the woman to make sure she is still looking and he could continue walking, thus causing the gap to close. Here are three other options as to how the man could close the gap:
- He could pretend his tripping was not a trip, at all, but instead it was a movement toward the ground so he could tie his shoe.
- He could pretend he dropped something, thus he needed to go to the ground for the invisible item.
- He could begin laughing and say loudly enough for the woman to hear, “Walk much?”
In each example above, there are five moments: first, the man struts with confidence. Second, the man trips. Third, the man makes an active choice as to how he will react to the trip. Fourth, he follows through with the action of his choice. Fifth, he begins walking again.
That might seem like a lot of steps for one simple moment! And yet, it is this specificity that separates the excellent actors from the average actors. It separates the compelling actors from the actors who present vague performances. Why? Because this is the specificity with which human beings live their everyday lives. If we as actors take the time to find where gaps exist in a script, and then make decisions about how the character is going to fill each gap, restore his balance and continue on, we are purposing to build the nuances of the character in every moment we are on stage. We are living truthfully in imaginary circumstances, thus well defined characters begin to emerge and the dynamics between characters come to life.
Here is another example of a gap in real life:
This morning I commenced with my daily morning routine of making a cup of coffee. Once the coffee was poured, I opened my refrigerator with the motivation of reaching for the creamer. Alas! The creamer was not where it is usually located on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. [GAP] In this moment, the gap opened up and I lost my balance: I realized the creamer was not where it should be and I wondered if we had run out. Then, I had to restore the balance. The choice I made inside the gap was simple: look around for the creamer. Once I found the creamer, the gap was closed and I continued on by pouring creamer into my coffee. Seems simple enough. Now, let’s add a fictional conditioning force. Let’s say my husband and I had gotten into a fight this morning. Let’s say the fight was about how he was supposed to walk the dogs this morning but he forgot, went to work and left the morning walk to me. So, I was left to walk the dogs in the hot, humid Missouri morning. During the walk, one of my dogs backed out of her collar to chase a squirrel she spotted about a block away from my front door. What began as a 3-minute “potty walk” turned into a 15- minute chase scene the likes of which might be featured on the Animal Channel: the dog chasing the squirrel, me and my other dog trying to capture the dog who had gone astray. Eventually, the dog is reached, I put the collar on the dog and then we all walk home together. I am pouring with sweat, I got mud on one of my shoes and I am angry for two reasons: one, my husband forgot to walk the dogs this morning and two, I am all hot and sweaty! Now . . . layer this backstory over the original coffee-creamer related scene:
How does the moment before—the dog chase, the wayward husband—condition my decision inside this gap? How does anger inform my choices? This seemingly mundane moment—not being able to easily find the creamer—is now different. Instead of filling the gap by simply looking around for the creamer, I could fill the gap in one of these ways:
- I could use the moment to passive aggressively call my husband and ask him where HE left the creamer this morning because I can’t find it and I really need coffee AFTER I walked the dogs, got mud on my shoe and ended up all sweaty because of HIM!
- I could let out an aggravated, vocal huff, and throw around the vegetables and milk in a dramatic display of frustration.
- I could stop looking. Take a deep breath, compose myself, and then commence to search for the creamer inside the refrigerator.
All three of the examples above would serve a dramatic interest if we were watching this character on stage. Only one of the examples, however, is a positive human choice outside the context of this fiction.
As you can see, gaps exist in our daily lives. So many of them exist, in fact, that we are rarely cognitive of them in the moments they are happening. We tend to close them without much thought, sometimes in a rote manner. Our thoughts can be quick and our movements are often swift. And yet . . . the gaps do exist and we do make active choices as to how to fill the gaps and restore balance.
Allow me to transition into how we can purposefully become aware of gaps in our everyday lives: please consider your use of Facebook. There is a need in our lives to recognize gaps in conflict with the people we know and love. We are being conditioned, however, to close the gaps on purely emotional instinct, rather than taking the time to make the more positive human choice of recognizing the gap, logically and carefully choosing our response, and then proceeding with the best action that will help both the individual and the relationship move forward. Let us not confuse real life with the stage! We seem to, as a culture, be playing into the highest dramatic quotient, but we have to remember we are not on stage. This is real life and our choices have consequences.
Have you ever had the experience of reading through your news feed, enjoying the photos of cats, inspirational memes, the Dos Equis guy telling you what he doesn’t usually do when, suddenly, you read a family member’s post in which he vastly disagrees with an opinion you hold dear? [GAP]. What are your choices? Instead of allowing your emotions to rule that moment—like throwing around the vegetables and milk looking for the creamer—stop. Take a deep breath. Think through your options. And ask yourself, what active choice can I make inside this gap and how will that choice affect the way in which I move forward? How can I close the gap between my emotional reaction and the way in which I treat this other human being?
Our ability to recognize a moment of imbalance, as well as the way in which we choose to regain our balance, reveals our character.
Please enjoy a 20 second example of filling the gap, starring Ellen DeGeneres (minutes 1:00-1:20):
–Jill Szoo Wilson