§5. Concentration and Attention (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)

Konstantin Stanislavski An Actor's work

THEATRE


This article is my summary of the fifth chapter of An Actor’s Work by Konstantin Stanislavski. This book is a new edition and English translation by Jean Benedetti of the material previously published under the titles “An Actor Prepares” and “Building A Character“.

Previous chapter: §4. Imagination (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Next chapter: §6. Muscular release (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Table of contents: An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)

Concentration and attention on stage

What does usually draw the actor’s attention on stage ?

On stage, the actor’s attention is usually drawn to his audience. This audience can be made of be the spectators in the auditorium, the teacher or director in the rehearsal room, the fellow actors or the actor himself. 

The problem is that the actor feels inhibited when his attention is on the audience.

“When I played just for myself alone, I became my own audience and inhibited myself as an actor.” (p. 90)

How can the actor divert his attention from the audience ?

To divert his attention from the audience, the actor needs to focus it on something else. He needs to focus it on what is happening on stage

“To divert your attention from the auditorium you must become engrossed in what is happening onstage.” (p. 90)

“The actor needs an object on which to focus his attention, only not in the auditorium, but on the stage and the more compelling that object is, the more it can command attention. “ (p. 91)

“When you feel the right to be out there onstage, then nothing frightens you.” (p. 94 s.)

But this is something that the actor needs to learn

Why does the actor need to learn to focus on an object on stage ?

In real life, the actor’s attention is naturally focused on different objects. 

“There is not one single moment in a man’s life when his attention is not engaged by some object or other.” (p. 91)

But when he is on stage, because of the presence of the audience, the actor loses this ability. 

“In life (…) objects do arise and attract attention spontaneously, in a natural way. We know perfectly well what to look at and how to look at it, at every moment of our existence. But in the theatre this is not so, in the theatre there is an auditorium which prevents the actor from living normally.” (p. 91) 

“To look and see onstage (…) is a difficult thing to do with other people present and with the black hole in front of you.” (p. 93)

“All, even the simplest, most elementary actions which we know perfectly well in life fall apart when someone makes an entrance onstage, in the glare of the footlights, in front of a packed house.” (p. 93)

For this reason, the actor needs to learn again, “onstage and in front of people” (p. 93):

“In life you know how to walk and speak and sit and look but in the theatre you lose this ability (…) You have to be taught everything from scratch – onstage and in front of people.” (p. 93)

“You must develop a special technique which will help you focus on an object in such a way that the onstage object will distract you from what is offstage. In a nutshell, (…) we have to learn to look and see.” (p 91)

“As regards the question of concentration (…), you must learn to look and see, listen and hear onstage, too.” (p. 93)

How should the actor focus his attention on something ?

Concentrating on something should be done:

Without straining

The actor should focus on something and look at it without straining

“Do you really need to strain so much just to observe ? Do less, less ! Much, much less ! Free yourself from tension (…) Why are you stretching out towards the object, why are you leaning so far towards it ? Ease back.” (p. 94)

“The tension (…) had prevented me from observing and seeing.” (p. 94)

“How simple it is, how little we need to observe and see.” (p. 94)

Without mechanical staring

Concentrating on something and looking at it doesn’t mean staring mechanically, with blank eyes.

“That’s not looking, that’s staring glassy-eyed.” (p. 94)

“There was still very little concentration and a deal of mechanical staring.” (p. 94)

Concentrating on something means really looking at it and seeing it. 

“An actor’s eyes that look and see attract the audience’s attention and at the same time they direct it to the object they should properly be looking at. Contrarywise, an actor’s vacant eyes direct the audience’s attention away from the stage.” (p. 95)

“Concentrating and seeming to be concentrating are not the same thing.” (p 94)

With a correct eye position

When the actor is looking at an imaginary object in the direction of the audience, he should set this object at its correct place so that his eye position is appropriate.

“Once you have learned, technically, to set the object in its proper place and concentrate your attention on it (…) then you can look at the audience as though you were looking through and beyond them or, conversely, as though your gaze fell short of them. (p. 113)

If the object is supposed to be on the fourth wall, the actor’s eyes should be almost squinting. 

“What position should the eyes be in when they are directed towards some immediate focal point on the imaginary wall [which should separate the actor from the auditorium] ? They have to squint almost as hard as when you are looking at the end of your nose.” (p. 112)

On the contrary, if the object is supposed to be in the distance, further than the audience, the actor’s eyes should be looking straight ahead.  

“Remember the position the eyes are in when looking into the distance. They look straight ahead so that both lines of vision are almost parallel with each other. To achieve this position of the eyes you have, as it were, to bore through the wall at the back of the stalls and in your mind discover the most distant imaginary point and concentrate your attention on it.” (p. 112 s.) 

With imagination

To make the object of his concentration interesting and worthy of his attention, the actor should use his imagination and create a story around this object. 

“To maintain concentration for as long a time as possible, we had to provide a firm foundation for what we were doing in our imagination.” (p. 92)

“It’s not the object itself (…) that causes us to concentrate, but an idea your imagination suggests. This idea gives it new life and, aided by the given circumstances, makes the object interesting. Create a wonderful and exciting story round it.” (p. 110)

Then the actor should introduce the “if” in relation with these imagined circumstances:

“Say to yourself, ‘If fiction became fact, what would I do?’” (p. 1110)

This will have the effect of:

  • arousing the actor’s imagination further
  • creating an emotional reaction in the actor
  • giving the actor an impulse to act

The imagination, the emotional reaction and the impulse to act will in turn strengthen the bond between the actor and the object of his attention and help to concentrate the attention.

“You think of something and focus your attention on the object and beyond that to your thoughts about it. As a result your imagination is aroused. It takes hold of you and an impulse to action results. And if you take action that means you have accepted the object, you believe in it, you have formed a link with it. (…) That is (…) your attention has been distracted from anything which is not onstage.” (p. 110)

“[The object] ceased to exist in its initial form, and disappeared, as it were, to emerge in another, stronger form, fortified by your imagination (…) The transformed object creates an emotional reaction. Concentration of this kind (…) sets the whole of an actor’s creative apparatus to work (…)” (p. 111)

“Concentration on an object produces a natural need to do something with it. Action concentrates the attention even more closely on the object. So, concentration plus action creates a close bond with the object.” (p. 92)

Stanislavski speaks of “sensory concentration” to describe this concentration enhanced with imagination.  

“You must be able to revitalize the object and beyond that the power of concentration itself, turning it from something cold, intellectual, rational into something warm, sensory. (…) Sensory concentration is particularly necessary and particularly valuable to us when establishing the ‘life of the human spirit in a role’” (p. 111). 

What the actor should focus his attention on ?

The actor should focus his attention on objects relating to what is happening onstage. These objects can be:

Real objects 

Among real objects, Stanislavski distinguishes between:

  • single objects, which he also calls “focal points
  • group of objects, which he calls “circles of attention

Focal points

Among single objects, Stanislavski make further distinctions, according to the distance between the object and the actor (p. 92). There are:

  1. the immediate focal point
  2. the mid focal point
  3. the distant focal point 

Circles of attention

A circle of attention is not a single object but a definite area, which include all the objects within its limits. 

“The circle of attention (…) represents not a single point but a definite small area with many different objects in it.” (p 98)

Focusing on a definite circle of attention therefore implies to make its outer limit clear

“You must restrict the circle of concentration by using the shapes of the objects in the room.” (p. 100)

The circle of attention can be (p. 102):

  1. Either around the actor: the actor himself is included in the circle; he is at its centre. 
  2. Or outside the actor: the actor himself is not included in the circle. 

Stanislavski identifies different kind of circles of attention, according to the length of the circle diameter:

  1. The small circle of attention.
  2. The medium circle of attention 
  3. The large circle of attention 
  4. The largest circle of attention 
The small circle of attention

The small circle of attention is the size of a hoop (p. 104). It is delimited by the body of the actor (p. 98 and 104). 

This small circle of attention allows the actor to experience “public solitude”. 

“This state of mind you are now in we call ‘public solitude’ (…) It is called public because we are all here with you. It is solitude because you are cut off from us by a small circle of attention. In a performance, with a thousand eyes on you, you can always retreat into your solitude, like a snail in its shell.” (p. 99)

The small circle of attention is mobile; it can follows the actor, wherever he goes. 

“You can take the small circle of attention everywhere with you not only onstage but in life itself(p. 103)”

The medium circle of attention 

The medium circle of attention is the size of a portion of a sitting room, that can include a table, chairs, a fireplace and armchairs (p. 99).

“A large area provides scope for broader action. In a large space it’s easier to talk about general not personal, intimate matters.” (p. 99)

The large circle of attention

The large circle of attention is the size of a whole sitting room (p. 100). 

The largest circle of attention 

The largest circle of attention is as wide as the actor can see.

“The dimensions of the largest circle depend on how far you can see (…) If we were (…) at sea, the dimensions of the circle of attention would be determined by the horizon.” (p. 100)

Moving between objects and circles

The larger the circle of attention, the bigger the challenge fort the actor’s attention. 

If the actor feels he’s losing his focus, he needs to retreat back to the start and to concentrate on an immediate focal point. 

He can then build from there, moving to the small circle of attention, and then again to larger ones. 

“As the circle (…) grows bigger, the area on which you have to concentrate grows larger. However, this can only continue as long as you are able, mentally, to hold onto the circumference firmly. As soon as it begins to waver and dissolve, you must quickly reduce the circle to dimensions you can cope with.” (p. 101)

“Our concentration slips out of control and dissolves into space. We have to pull it back together again and focus it. To do that, use a focal point quickly. (…) Once you have latched onto it for a minute, first establish a small circle (…) Then select a medium circle of attention.” (p. 101). 

“In moments of panic and confusion, you must remember that the wider and emptier the large circle, the narrower and firmer must be the medium and small circles within it, and the more your public solitude must shut things out.” (p. 102)

Imaginary objects

When focusing on imaginary objects, the actor is turning his attention inwards.

“So far we have been turning our attention outwards, towards objects (…), that had not been given life by “if”, the Given Circumstances, our own ideas. (…) Now we must turn our attention inwards, towards objects that are imaginary, in our minds.” (p. 106)

Focusing his attention on imaginary objects is an indirect way to approach sensations or experiences. 

“We first inwardly create visual representations [of outside objects] (…) and then, through these representations, we inwardly stimulate one of our five senses and finally focus on the result. So, in our imagination, our concentration does not approach the object [the sensation] directly, but indirectly, via another, so to speak, secondary object [the outside object]” (p. 107)

“You had a picture, a representation of life backstage just prior to your entrance. It produced a response, past experience were revived.” (p. 107).

It is more difficult to focus on imaginary objects than on real objects. The actor’s private thoughts are competing for his attention. 

“The objects of our imagination are unstable and often elusive. If the material world demands well-trained powers of concentration, these demands are increased many times when it comes to unstable imaginary objects.” (p. 108)

“Inward concentration can momentarily be diverted from the role by an actor’s thoughts about his personal life. (…) The wrong kind of concentration deflects us from the line we should be following, and draws us to the other side of the footlights, to the auditorium, or beyond the confines of the theatre.” (p. 108)

How can the actor develop his concentration and attention ?

Developing the concentration is done through specific exercises. These exercises consist in practicing focusing the attention on the different focal points and circles of attention, and moving from one to another. Stanislavski also recommends doing the exercises he advised in relation with working on the imagination.  

“You first need exercises which will help you to take your mind off things you shouldn’t be looking at or thinking about and, second, exercises so you can concentrate inwardly on the things the role needs.” (p. 108)

“If the actor (…) is sufficiently disciplined (…) and is always inwardly self-possessed then the rest is easy. His power of concentration is receiving the training it needs even without special exercises. (..) But conscientious daily work of this kind demands great strength of will, steadfastness and self-control and not everyone is so endowed. So, apart from actual stage work it is possible to train one’s power of concentration in private life. With this end in view, do the same exercises you did to develop the imagination. They are equally effective for developing concentration.” (p. 109)

Concentration and attention as a source of creative material. 

Concentration and attention are not only important for the actor when he is on stage, to divers his attention from the audience. They are equally important in real life, to provide the actor with creative material

“If only [actors] would always investigate what [is] going on around them in real life with that degree of concentration ! How rich in creative material we would be.” (p. 116).

There are different things in real life which can be a source of creative material and which the actors should concentrate on:

  • nature
  • the art
  • the outer life
  • the inner life of people

Nature

“The most beautiful thing of all is nature itself. Observe her as closely as possible. For a start, take a flower, or a leaf (…). All these are works of the supreme artist, Nature. Try to define verbally what pleases you about them. That will focus your attention more firmly on the object you are observing, make you relate to it more consciously, so you can appreciate it and investigate its essence more profoundly.” (p. 114)

“The beautiful elevates the soul and stirs its finest feelings, leaving indelible, deep tracks in emotion and other kinds of memory. ” (p. 114)

“Don’t be squeamish about the dark side of nature. (…) There is an element of beauty in what is most ugly, just as the beautiful contains things which are not beautiful. But the truly beautiful does not fear what is ugly. Very often the latter only serves to set off the beauty of the former. If you don’t [seek out both], your concept of beauty will become one-sided, cloying, prettified, sentimental and that is a great danger for art.” (p. 115)

“How can you teach people who are not observant to notice and see the things nature and life provide ? First you must explain to them how to look and see, listen and hear not only what is bad but above all what is beautiful. The beautiful elevates the soul and stirs its finest feelings, leaving indelible, deep tracks in emotion and other kinds of memory. ” (p. 114)

The art

“Then, turn to the study ow works of art themselves. (…) But don’t do it with the cold eye of the analyst. [Try to record what you register] like an artist, not just in a notebook but in [your] heart. (…) We need a certain degree of inner fire, we need sensory concentration.” (p. 115)

The outer life

“An actor must concentrate not only onstage but in life. He must concentrate his whole being on anything which catches his attention.” (p. 113)

This observation of situations in the outer life should go together with a work of the imagination. The actor should make imaginative speculations about the things he sees. This imagination work can be stimulated by a conscious mental activity, through questions. 

“As before, ask yourself questions and answer them honestly, sincerely: the who, what, when, why, wherefore of what you observe happening. (…) You will learn a great deal from this imaginative speculation.” (p. 116 s.)

“Perhaps you are frightened that these speculations and ideas (…) may distort the material you have drawn from life ? Have no fear ! Very often the personal things you add (if you believe them) enhance it” (p. 117)

“You see, I’m not a statistician who needs the date he has gathered to be exact, I’m an actor who needs creative emotions. The picture I’ve described from life, embellished by my imagination, lives to this day in my memory and lends itself to the stage” (p. 117)

The inner life of people

The most important source of creative material are the emotions of other people. 

“Once you have learned to look at the life around you and to discover creative material in it, you will need to study material which is even more important to you and on which your creative work will mainly be based. I am talking about the emotions that arise from personal, direct communication, from mind to mind, from living objects, that is, from people. (…) From [this material] is formed ‘the life of the human spirit in a role’” (p. 117).

But it is difficult to access to this material. 

“It is difficult to dig this material out because it is invisible (…) Many invisible (…) experiences are reflected in one’s facial expressions, in the eyes, the voice, one’s speech, one’s movements (…). [But] in the majority of cases [people] hide their experiences, and an outward mask serves as a barrier (…)

Sometimes, it is possible to get to these emotions through conscious attention, with the actor observing the outer behavior of people and asking himself questions.

“When the inner world of the person we are observing is revealed through his actions, thoughts, impulses (…) observe them attentively and ask yourself: ‘Why did this person do it this way and not some other way, what was in his mind?’” (p. 118)

Other times, these emotions can only be observed through unconscious attention, that is the actor’s intuition. 

“But there are times when another person’s inner life will not yield to our own conscious mind, when it is accessible only to intuition. Then we have to delve into its innermost recesses, and seek creative material using what we might call the probes of our own feelings. In this process we are dealing with the most subtle kind of concentration and observation, which are subconscious in origin. (…) All we can rely on in this complex process (…) is our worldly wisdom, our human experience, our sensitivity and our intuition.” (p. 118). 

Previous chapter: §4. Imagination (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Next chapter:
§6. Muscular release (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Table of contents:
An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)

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