Horror Vacui

Originally published July 10, 2014

One of my favorite classes in college was art history. Our teacher introduced us to a concept that sounded like something from a science fiction movie: “horror vacui.” She explained it meant fear of open space. The Egyptians were afflicted with it. In their art, they had the need to fill every blank surface. Their massive sculptures were covered with hieroglyphics. When that didn’t seem to do the trick, they painted them as well. Horror vacui was one of the dominant influences in some of the more famous illustrated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. There seemed to be the literal need to fill in all the 0s.

Not all horror vacui is bad. As parents, we have come to rely on “Where’s Waldo?” books for a few minutes of peace and quiet.

However, horror vacui is a force that hurts our acting. There is a tangible urge to fill any silence. I have seen clean, dramatic moments muddied by randomly adding words, gestures, or ever-evolving facial expressions. I have seen great comedic lines not “land” because of what my acting teachers used to call “nervous energy.”

Is that what it is? My teachers always pointed to the great insights of Stanislavsky. Actors need relaxation onstage. We did endless relaxation exercises in college. Some were so effective I fell asleep, but for some reason I still twitched onstage.

I think Stanislavsky has a good explanation for horror vacui, but it was in a different part of his book. In “An Actor Prepares,” he notes, “The very worst fact is that clichés will fill up every empty spot in a role, which is not already solid with living feeling.”

My takeaway from this is not to add more feeling but to investigate the “empty spots” of a role.

I look to another discipline for guidance—chemistry. Electrons will always seek the lowest level of energy. It is the same with acting. We feel most comfortable at the lowest level of energy. This doesn’t lead to too little feeling, it leads to too many unexplored questions. That leads to holes in our characterizations, which leads to horror vacui and the desire to fill in the gaps with randomness.

I have a series of questions I ask when I start working on a scene. They help me get grounded in the truth.

Is the situation I am in new or old?

Am I telling the truth? All of the time? If not, why am I lying?

What was I doing before the scene started?

Where am I going afterward?

Did the events of this scene change the course of my day? Why?

These are just a few. They always jump-start the search for specific truths. As Stanislavsky wrote, “You may play well or you may play badly; the important thing is that you should play truly.”

Silence and relaxation happen when we are confident we are telling the truth. Our horror vacui becomes a wonderful barometer that tells us we still have questions that need answers.