“Focus is whatever distracts us from whatever distracts us.” - W Timothy Gallwey.
Historically, acting was about demonstrating, actors showed the symbols of an emotion through a physical demonstration. When the character was sad, the actor showed the audience this with a frown and when they want to show love, they put their hands over their heart. It seems almost ridiculous now, but that was acting for most of its history, until around the mid-1850s.
Stanislavsky, the father of modern acting noticed that some actors like the Italians Salvini and Duse did something different from this 'demonstrating'. These actors lived on stage without the gestures which symbolised emotion.
In Stanislavsky’s English language book An Actor Prepares, his fictional persona Tortsov, the acting teacher, has his students do the simplest of exercise, to simply sit on the stage and be. All the students find this tremendously difficult. And what hope do they have as actors, if they cannot simply sit on stage and be? The students feels self-conscious, doubt, they lose confidence, they become distracted by the other students watching and they feel that they are going to be absorbed by the great dark abyss of the auditorium.
One particular student is doing the exercise, when a workman who is busy fixing something in the theatre drops a bag of nails. The student rushes over to help them, picking up the nails, chasing some that are rolling down the stage and helping the workman.
In this moment, the student is so completely absorbed in doing something that all those fears and doubts about being on stage disappear. Having a simple achievable task caused the student to become distracted from their self consciousness by something that absorbed their attention. The result was that he picked up the nails with ease, confidence and focus, forgetting himself, the audience and auditorium in the process.
Stanislavsky realised that whenever actors have their attention totally absorbed into doing a task, they are instantly freed from the bonds of self consciousness. He realised that the right behaviour and emotions for the scenes were a byproduct of having a purpose.
Just like the Italians that Stanislavsky admired, actors that had purpose produced compelling, performances, without self-consciousness, with genuine emotion. This simple idea changed acting forever.
To You, The Best
Mark Westbrook is the Studio Director at Acting Coach Scotland, with award winning actor clients all over the world.