Last night I was lucky enough to see Sir Ian McKellen up close and almost personal; he is currently hosting a week of evenings at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park as part of their fundraising, and spends a couple of hours doing readings, reciting monologues and poetry, and talking about himself and his experiences in the theatre. It was funny, moving, brilliant - and thought-provoking.
Obviously, given the nature of the evening, some of the thoughts were on funding (or lack of it) for the arts in the UK and the wider world. But his ability to recite a familiar poem or speech but influence the understanding of it through what he did *not* say as much as by what he did, was striking.
I should perhaps not be surprised. At the beginning of the last school play I directed, the first character, as part of a rehearsal, stands alone on the stage, waiting for a prompt. The young actress was nervous about standing in silence on the stage for too long; "What if people think I've forgotten the line?" she asked. By remaining calm in her pause on stage, she was able to convince the audience that she was completely in control, even though her character had forgotten the line. The actress was able to make the pause longer and longer as we rehearsed, until by the time of performance, she had the audience in fits of giggles without even speaking a word.
Silence is not always amusing. In the poems and monologues Sir Ian recited last night, the narrator/character was often confronting an unpleasant realisation, and the pause emphasised just how hard a realisation it was. The expression 'a dramatic pause' is well-known for a reason. It also enabled the audience to consider the implications of what they had just heard, before moving on to the next part of the idea.
Pausing in poetry should be readily apparent. A new stanza brings about a pause, quite apart from the caesurae that seem so beloved by the GCSE boards. In a Shakespearean soliloquy, there is more opportunity for the actor to bring their own interpretation via their delivery - the intonation, the pace of each phrase, and the pause. Each emphasises the speech in a different way, and combined, can influence what the audience hears and understands.
As a director, you never want the action on stage to drag, and it is tempting sometimes to stop actors from pausing in case the flow is lost. But it is worth remembering, particularly having seen such a master of the art demonstrate it last night, that a pause can be worth a thousand words.