“What do I do with my hands?” It’s a classic question that plagues newly initiated actors and speakers. But even veteran performers can struggle with when, how, and to what extent they should make gestures.
For example, take a look at Tom’s classic monologue in Glass Menagerie:
TOM: Yes, movies! Look at them. (He waves his hands.) All of those glamorous people—having adventures—hogging it all, gobbling the whole thing up! You know what happens? People go to the movies instead of moving. Hollywood characters are supposed to have all the adventures for everybody in America, while everybody in America sits in a dark room and watches them having it! Yes, until there’s a war. That’s when adventure becomes available to the masses! Everyone’s dish, not only Gable’s! Then the people in the dark room come out of the dark room to have some adventures themselves—goody—goody! It’s our turn now to go to the South Sea Island—to make a safari—to be exotic, far off…! But I’m not patient. I don’t want to wait till then. I’m tired of the movies and I’m about to move!
“He waves his hands.” Now, how closely we follow written stage directions are up to the director, but Tennessee Williams certainly intends for Tom to express himself and his thoughts here.
Gesturing is most effective when…
- it fits the character and the context
- its meaning reinforces the meaning of the spoken words
- drawing the audience’s attention is intended
- it is committed
- it is not superfluous
It fits the character and the context.
In Glass Menagerie, Tom isn’t a particularly animated person. He’s tired, calloused, dreamy… but he’s boiling inside. And when I say that, first, gesturing is most effective when it fits the character to the context, we find Tom’s waving his hands around as a natural outpouring of the frustration he is venting in this monologue.
Its meaning reinforces the meaning of the spoken words.
Second, looking at the words Tom is speaking, we find some gesture-able key words such as “all” (three times), and “everybody”/“everyone” (three times). Tom is waxing on about this giant disparity between “us” and “them,” and using sweeping motions to broadcast the magnitude of his feelings on the issue. Such gestures reinforce the meaning of the words he is speaking.
Drawing the audience’s attention is intended.
Movement grabs attention. It’s the way our eyes are wired. Our peripheral vision has a heightened sensitivity to movement, and we often can’t help but glance at movement elsewhere in our visual range. Eyes are glued to movement, which is what can make gestures so effective in keeping the audience’s attention. If the focus on stage is not intended to be on you at the moment, any movement you make may be a distraction.
It is committed.
When I was starting out in competitive speech in college, my coaches drilled the importance of committed gestures. “Keep your gestures above the waist” “If you move your arm, make sure there’s a point.” Even now, when coaching actors and speakers, I see how common it is to do a little “hand flip” down at the side of one’s leg. It’s a half-gesture and has no power. Commit to your gestures, know when they matters, and they will communicate effectively on their own.
It is not superfluous.
If your arms are flailing the entire time you are speaking, it is all just meaningless visual noise. Even four clear, committed gestures in a monologue like Tom’s are infinitely more effective than hands and arms that don’t know when to stop.
As a final note, I don’t suggest that gesturing be so planned and calculated that it appears robotic. Our gestures can, and should, be just as natural as the words coming out of our mouths. We don’t gesture for the sake of gesturing, but for the sake of communicating meaning and emotion. Humans are complex and multi-faceted. We somehow get by on our own because so much is subconscious. But we actors, tasked with being another human, need to consciously explore one aspect of personality at a time and shape it into the human we are looking to become. Gestures are just one tool we have at our disposal.
Do you tend to gesture on stage too often? Not enough? Do you naturally talk with your hands?