Perhaps there are situations on stage where you can’t listen to another character.
At these times you need to have something to do, some reason to be on stage. Sanford Meisner defined this reason as your independent activity. It’s some task a character very much—even desperately–needs to do, without any regard to other characters and their doings. The independent activity gives the actor an inner emotional life in that scene.
Let me use an example. In the Harold Pinter play “The Matchseller” I played the title character. There’s a scene in which I am left sitting in the living room of the two other characters (a married couple) while they are out in the garden arguing. I am a stranger to them; they are strangers to me. We have just met a few minutes ago. What reason would my character have to stay in the living room when my hosts have left the house? Why would he/me not leave the house? Yes, I know the ACTOR’s reason is that the playwright and the director told me to sit in the living room; but that is not enough. The CHARACTER needs to have a reason to stay; otherwise, while the character is sitting silently and the married couple is arguing, the character, the matchseller, becomes merely a piece of furniture.
I suppose I could have eavesdropped on the other two characters talking in the garden…that might have been a good choice. What I chose instead was to organize my matches. My character was a silent man, with a tray full of matches for sale. My inventory, my living, my profession, my calling; all were wrapped up in dozens of boxes of matches. I was in a strange land, not speaking the language, not understanding why I had been seduced into this couple’s home. I was confused, a bit scared, insecure. My only strength could come from doing what I knew: that is, to organize my matches.
Knowing exactly how they needed to sit on the tray in order to be in perfect order for retail display, while I sat in the living room I concentrated on this task of organizing. It gave me peace; it gave me inner strength. It gave my character life.
And, yes, often we get directions to “sit there” or “look pensive” and we have to find the reality on our own. Sometimes if you have a director who gives you no help, you’re forced to work that much harder on your own to get good work. This particular director didn’t give me any direction for this scene, other than to “sit on the chair.” Yet, if I had simply sat there, I would be a bad actor; I would be stepping out of character like a lump; I would be phoning it in. So, I found my reality, my character’s reality.