Lou Holtz toed the edge of the stage. Closest to the action, like the famed football coach was used to, he took in the 2,000 attentive players.
“I’m short, balding, have thick glasses and talk with a lisp,” he said. “And therefore you want me to address some of the greatest speakers in the world?”
It’s not just remarkable that this affable, quip-equipped, forceful coach and commentator spoke as keynoter at the National Speakers Association general session. It’s more remarkable that he didn’t move from his original spot on the stage.
His feet stayed still. For 45 minutes. He freely gestured. But those feet did not move.
Adding to the impact that his stillness made, he took the strongest position you can take on stage: downstage right, just off center.
Wait a minute! Why should we care about this?! Because it’s one of many critical choices we can make to more effectively deliver our message. And it’s not just when we stand up to speak, it’s applicable any time we decide how to position ourselves in a space.
If you’re not familiar, from the actor’s perspective, downstage is toward the audience; upstage toward the back wall of the stage; stage right and left refer to the actor’s right and left as they face the audience. These are very important when staging a play as they are way all artists involved in the production communicate. They are also critical to you, as Actor, an authentic, dynamic communicator who gets stuff done.
Our accomplished speaker chose to stand far downstage, about a foot from the edge and not center, but a few feet off to the right. Whether he was coached (THE coach has a coach?), did it naturally or just liked that position doesn’t matter—somehow he took the strongest spot.
The downstage, off-center position tends to create just enough visual conflict (the essence of drama) that the audience stays engaged. They are continually trying to mentally move the actor to dead center to create a symmetrical picture. For those with asymmetrical preferences off-center feels right. Regardless, you better be a damn fine communicator with a compelling story to claim this position.
The maxim “Reality is Always Downstage” comes to mind. It means that when a revealing moment of theatrical truth occurs, the director positions the actor downstage, closest to the audience. With video production the close-up accomplishes this. The closer we get to an actor’s face and their expressions, the closer we get to the point of the scene. On the live stage, the actor IS the camera—they need to provide the dolly shots and close-ups with their bodies. So do you.
The next time you watch a movie or TV show, note how the framing of the scene moves from master shot, to actors’ full bodies, then head to waist, head to shoulder and on into a close shot of the actors’ faces. For you as Actor, your body position, even with something as simple as leaning in to make a point has the same effect—to emphasize your message and make sure your audience understands.
What might be your downstage, just off center position in the places you communicate? Where’s your moment-of-truth opportunity in space?
Lou Holtz is justified in holding the strongest spot or any spot he wants, really. Engaging stories. Total confidence in his role. Content so compelling that we came to him so he didn’t have to move. Remarkable.
Was it his presence? Him as legend in the sports world? His disarming, self-described oddity?
Yeah, all that. Talent. Experience. With enough technique to play on what audience’s enjoy—a good story. He brought us into his world, with reality being down right, just off center.
Look to your stage. Your performance position. With smart choices at your command, you’re on!