The great jazz pioneer Miles Davis once said, “Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.” Well, when it comes to timing for actors and comedians, casting veteran James Levine has to agree. “Timing is everything,” he insists. 

In episode 18 of Casting Frontier’s Bring It! series, Levine and session director/actor Charles Carpenter discuss the importance of timing, rhythm, and pace while performing on stage or screen. While delivering their lines, actors can use these elements to create truly memorable performances and even establish a signature rhythmic style.

Your voice is a powerful tool; it has the potential to grab the attention of audiences and keep it—or lose it. Depending on the scene or comedy routine, the speed with which you deliver your lines communicates a lot of information. Speaking fast, for example, can reveal a bubbly personality, a desperately frightened person, a meth addict, or somebody rushing to catch a train. But if a comedian rushes the set up of a joke or its punchline, that fast speech can leave the audience wanting for more.

On the other hand, a medium, comfortably paced speech pattern allows the audience to take in each word, but it can become too predictable if it’s not strategically altered in certain parts. And, while slow speech in the form of a dramatic pause is capable of bringing audiences to the edge of their seats, a slowly told joke has the potential to bore audiences to tears. Levine says, “Ultimately, [your pacing] has to benefit the scene. I always come back around to this: It doesn’t matter how intelligent your choices are; if they don’t benefit the scene, you’ve got to scrap them.”

Vocal rhythms punctuate your voice and are evident as you increase or decrease volume, speed up or slow down speech, or use higher or lower pitches (like speaking in a dull, monotone or an expressive, sing-song voice). Some people have such a natural ability with timing, pace, and rhythm, they captivate audiences without needing to practice them at all. Others, however, struggle to learn these aspects of performing and have to purposefully experiment with them for years. 

Levine says, “You can’t always teach timing fully. You can teach the idea of it. And then people feel it or they don’t. It’s a little bit like music. Some people got no rhythm. And you can almost replicate rhythm if you really think about it hard enough, but it’s in there or it isn’t.”

Whatever your level of mastery, putting yourself out there in front of an audience can help you learn and grow in this area. For example, through trial and error, performers can refine which words to emphasize within each sentence to have a bigger impact on audiences.

“The timing of a joke is the same as music,” says comedian Jerry Seinfeld. “If the rhythm isn’t just right, if it’s a little long—the pause in between the setup and the punchline—if it isn’t just right, it doesn’t get a laugh. And I don’t know why. But I know what’s right and when it’s not right.”

Putting a personal stamp on timing, rhythm, and pacing

Performers might enter the audition room with the thought of giving a commonsense reading of the lines; after all, that kind of delivery is only logical. But Carpenter encourages actors and comedians to gain more in-depth insights about their personal rhythms. With this in mind, he gives a week-long homework assignment for performers to become more aware of their unique sense of timing, rhythm, and pace based on the various moods they experience during that time period. This knowledge can be useful in the audition room.  “Finding an unusual pace and timing to a scene can make [a performance] blossom,” Levine says.

Determined to help actors cut through the mystery associated with the casting process, James Levine authored an enlightening book entitled Bring It! along with Charles Carpenter and Jim Martyka, which will be released digitally in the near future. In the book, Levine shares helpful audition information from the vantage point of a casting director as it relates to commercial, film, and television acting. The book’s chapters correspond to the Bring It! video series.

Casting Frontier’s YouTube channel publishes weekly video tips, tricks, best practices, and interviews with industry professionals. Tune in each week for the latest valuable insights—or better yet, subscribe now.