Concentration of Attention Part 01 | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski
Concentration of Attention Part 01
An Actor Prepares
WE WERE WORKING on exercises today when suddenly some of the chairs along one of the walls toppled over. At first, we were puzzled and then we realized that somebody was raising the curtain. As long as we were in Maria’s “drawing-room” we never had any sense of there being a right or wrong side to the room. Wherever we stood was right. But opening that fourth wall with its big black proscenium arch made you feel that you must constantly adjust yourself. You think of the people looking at you; you seek to be seen and heard by them and not by those who are in the room with you. Only a moment ago the Director and his assistant seemed a natural element here in the drawing-room, but now, transported into the orchestra, they became something quite different; we were all affected by the change. For my part, I felt that until we learned how to overcome the effect of that black hole we should never go an inch forward in our work. Paul, however, was confident that we could do better with a new and exciting exercise. The Director’s answer to this was:
“Very well. We can try it. Here is a tragedy, which I hope will take your minds off the audience.
“It takes place here in this apartment. Maria has married Kostya, who is treasurer of some public organization. They have a charming newborn baby, that is being bathed by its mother in a room off the dining room. The husband is going through some papers and counting money. It is not his money, but property in his care, just brought from the bank. A stack of packets of bank bills has been thrown on the table. In front of Kostya stand Maria’s younger brother, Vanya, a low type of moron, who watches him tear the colored bindings off the packets, and throw them in the fire, where they blaze up and make a lovely glow.
“All the money is counted. As she judges her husband has finished his work Maria calls him in to admire the baby in his bath. The half-witted brother, in imitation of what he has seen, throws some papers into the fire, and whole packets, he finds, make the best blaze, so that in a frenzy of delight he throws in all—the public funds, just drawn from the bank by the treasurer! At this moment Kostya returns and sees the last packet flaring up. Beside himself, he rushes to the fireplace and knocks down the moron, who falls with a groan, and, with a cry, pulls the last half-burned packet out of the fire.
“His frightened wife runs into the room and sees her brother stretched out on the floor. She tries to raise him, but cannot. Seeing blood on her hands she cries to her husband to bring some water, but he is in a daze and pays no heed, so she runs after it herself. From the other room, a heart-rending scream is heard. The darling baby is dead—drowned in its bath.
“Is this enough of a tragedy to keep your minds off the audience?”
This new exercise stirred us with its melodrama and unexpectedness, and yet we accomplished nothing.
“Evidently,” exclaimed the Director, “the magnet of the audience is more powerful than the tragedy happening right there on the stage. Since that is so, let us try it again, this time with the curtain down.” He and his assistant came back out of the audience into our drawing-room, which once more became friendly and hospitable.
We began to act. In the quiet parts, at the beginning of the exercise, we did well; but when we came to the dramatic places, it seemed to me that what I gave out was not at all adequate, and I wanted to do far more than I had feelings for.
This judgment of mine was confirmed when the Director spoke. “In the beginning,” he said, “you acted correctly, but at the end, you were pretending to act. You were squeezing feelings out of yourself, so you cannot blame everything on the black hole. It is not the only thing in the way of your living properly on the stage, since with the curtain down the result is the same.”
On the excuse of being bothered by any onlookers, we were ostensibly left alone to act the exercise again. Actually, we were watched through a hole in the scenery and were told that this time we had been both bad and self-assured. “The main fault,” said the Director, “seems to lie in your lack of power to concentrate your attention, which is not yet prepared for creative work.”
The lesson today took place on the school stage, but the curtain was up, and the chairs that stand against it were taken away. Our little living room was now open to the whole auditorium, which took away all its atmosphere of intimacy and turned it into an ordinary theatrical set. Electric cables were hung on the wall, running in various directions, with bulbs on them, as if for illumination.
We were settled in a row, close to the footlights. Silence fell. “Which of the girls has lost a heel of her shoe?” asked the Director suddenly.
The students busily examined each other’s footgear and were completely absorbed when the Director interrupted.
“What,” he asked us, “has just happened in the hall?”
We had no idea. “Do you mean to say you did not notice that my secretary has just brought in some papers for me to sign?” No one had seen him. “And with the curtain up too! The secret seems to be simple enough: In order to get away from the auditorium you must be interested in something on the stage.”
That impressed me at once because I realized that from the very moment I concentrated on something behind the footlights, I cease to think about what was going on in front of them.
I remembered helping a man to pick up nails that had fallen on the stage when I was rehearsing for my scenes from Othello. Then I was absorbed by the simple act of picking them up, and chatting with the man, and I entirely forgot the black hole beyond the footlights.
“Now you will realize that an actor must have a point of attention, and this point of attention must not be in the auditorium. The more attractive the object the more it will concentrate the attention. In real life, there are always plenty of objects that fix our attention, but conditions in the theatre are different, and interfere with an actor’s living normally so an effort to fix attention becomes necessary. It becomes requisite to learn anew to look at things on the stage, and to see them. Instead of lecturing you further on this subject, I will give you some examples.
“Let the points of light, which you will see in a moment, illustrate to you certain aspects of objects, familiar to you in ordinary life, and consequently needed on the stage as well.”
There was complete darkness, both in the hall and on the stage. In a few seconds, a light appeared, on the table near which we were sitting. In the surrounding gloom, this light was noticeable and bright.
“This little lamp,” explained the Director, “shining in the darkness, is an example of the Nearest Object. We make use of it in moments of greatest concentration, when it is necessary to gather in our whole attention, to keep it from dissipating itself on distant things.” After the lights were all turned on again, he continued:
“To concentrate on a point of light in surrounding darkness is comparatively easy. Let us repeat the exercise in the light.”
He requested one of the students to examine the back of an armchair. I was to study the imitation enamel on a tabletop. To a third was given some piece of bric-a-brac, a fourth had a pencil, a fifth a piece of string, a sixth a match, and so on.
Paul started to untangle his piece of string, and I stopped him because I said the purpose of the exercise was the concentration of attention and not action, that we should only examine the objects given to us and think about them. As Paul disagreed with me, we took our difference of opinion to the Director, who said:
“Intensive observation of an object naturally arouses a desire to do something with it. To do something with it in turn intensifies your observation of it. This mutual inter-reaction establishes a stronger contact with the object of your attention.”
When I turned back to study the enamel design on the tabletop I felt a desire to pick it out with some sharp instrument. This obliged me to look at the pattern more closely. Meantime Paul was enthusiastically rapt in the job of unknotting his string. And all the others were busy doing things or attentively observing their various objects.
Finally, the Director said:
“I see that you are all able to concentrate on the nearest object in the light as well as in the dark.”
After that, he demonstrated, first without lights and then with them, objects at a moderate distance and objects at a far distance. We were to build some imaginary story around them and hold them in the center of our attention as long as we could. This we were able to do when the main lights were turned off.
As soon as they were put on again he said:
“Now look around you very carefully and choose someone thing, either moderately near or farther off, and concentrate on it.”
There were so many things all around us that at first, my eyes kept running from one to the other. Finally, I settled on a little statuette over on the mantelpiece. But I could not keep my eyes fixed on it for long. They were drawn away to other things about the room.
“Evidently before you can establish medium and far distant points of attention you will have to learn how to look at and see things on the stage,” said the Director. “It is a difficult thing to do in front of people, and the dark proscenium arch.
“In ordinary life, you walk and sit and talk and look, but on the stage, you lose all these faculties. You feel the closeness of the public and you say to yourself, ‘Why are they looking at me?’ And you have to be taught all over again how to do all these things in public.
“Remember this: all of our acts, even the simplest, which are so familiar to us in everyday life, become strained when we appear behind the footlights before a public of a thousand people. That is why it is necessary to correct ourselves and learn again how to walk, move about, sit, or lie down. It is essential to re-educate ourselves to look and see, on the stage, to listen and to hear.”
“Choose someone object,” said the Director to us today, after we had been seated on the open stage. “Suppose you take that embroidered cloth over there, since it has a striking design.”
We began to look at it very carefully, but he interrupted.
“That is not looking. It is staring.”
We tried to relax our gaze, but we did not convince him that we were seeing what we were looking at.
“More attentively,” he ordered.
We all bent forward.
“Still a lot of mechanical gazing,” he insisted, “and little attention.”
We knit our brows and seemed to me to be most attentive.
“To be attentive and to appear to be attentive are two different things,” he said. “Make the test for yourselves, and see which way of looking is real, and which is imitative.”
After a great deal of adjusting, we finally settled down quietly, trying not to strain our eyes, and looked at the embroidered cloth. Suddenly he burst out laughing, and turning to me he said:
“If only I could photograph you just as you are! You wouldn’t believe that any human being could contort himself into such an absurd attitude. Why your eyes are almost bursting from their sockets. Is it necessary for you to put so much effort into merely looking at something? Less, less! Much less effort! Relax! more! Are you so drawn to this object that you have to bend forwards to it? Throw yourself back! A great deal more!”
He was able, finally, to reduce a little of my tenseness. The little he did accomplish made an enormous difference to me. No one can have any idea of this relief unless he has stood on the open stage, crippled with strained muscles.
“A chattering tongue or mechanically moving hands and feet cannot take the place of the comprehending eye. The eye of an actor who looks at and sees an object attracts the attention of the spectator, and by the same token points out to him what he should look at. Conversely, a blank eyelets the attention of the spectator wander away from the stage.”
Here he went back to his demonstration with electric lights: “I have shown you a series of objects such as we all have in life. You have seen the objects in the way that an actor should feel them on the stage. Now I shall show you how they never should be looked at but nevertheless almost always are. I shall show you the objects with which an actor’s attention is nearly always busied while he is on the boards.”
All the lights went out again, and in the dark, we saw little bulbs flashing all around. They dashed about the stage and then all through the audience. Suddenly they disappeared, and a strong light appeared above one of the seats in the orchestra.
“What is that?” asked a voice in the dark.
“That is the Severe Dramatic Critic,” said the Director. “He comes in for a lot of attention at the opening.”
The little lights began to flash again, then they stopped, and again a strong light appeared, this time over the orchestra seat of the regisseur.
Scarcely had this gone out when a dim, weak, and tiny bulb appeared on the stage. “That,” said he ironically, “is the poor partner of an actor who pays little attention to her.”
After this, the little lights flashed all around again, and the big lights came on and off, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes separately,—an orgy of lights. It reminded me of the exhibition performance of Othello, when my attention was scattered all over the theatre, and when only accidentally, and at certain moments, was I able to concentrate on a nearby object.
“Is it now clear,” the Director asked, “that an actor should choose the object of his attention on the stage, in the play, the role, and the setting? This is the difficult problem you must solve.”
Today the Assistant Director, Rakhmanov, appeared and announced that he had been asked by the Director to take his place for a class drill.
“Collect all of your attention,” he said in a crisp, confident tone. “Your exercise will be as follows. I shall select an object for each of you to look at. You will notice its form, lines, colors, detail, and characteristics. All this must be done while I count thirty. Then the lights will go out so that you cannot see the object, and I shall call upon you to describe it. In the dark, you will tell me everything that your visual memory has retained. I shall check-up with the lights on, and compare what you have told me with the actual object.
Listen closely. I am beginning. Maria—the mirror.”
“O good gracious! Is this the one?”
“No unnecessary questions. There is one mirror in the room, and only one. An actor should be a good guesser.
“Leo—the picture, Grisha—the chandelier, Sonya—the scrapbook.”
“The leather one?” she asked, in her honeyed voice.
“I have already pointed it out. I do not repeat. An actor should catch things on the fly. Kostya—the rug.” “There are a number of them,” I said.
“In case of uncertainty, decide for yourself. You may be wrong, but do not hesitate. An actor must have the presence of mind. Do not stop to enquire. Vanya—the vase. Nicholas—the window, Dasha—the pillow. Vassili—the piano. One, two, three, four, five . . .” He counted slowly up to thirty. “Lights out.” He called on me first.
“You told me to look at a rug, and I could not decide at once, so I lost some time”
“Be shorter, and stick to the point.”
“The rug is Persian. The general background is reddish-brown. A big border frames the edgesMM” I went on describing it until the Assistant Director called out “Lights.”
“You remembered it all wrong. You didn’t carry the impression. You scattered it. Leo!”
“I could not make out the subject of the painting, because it is so far away, and I am short-sighted. All I saw was a yellow tone on a red background.”
“Lights. There is neither red nor yellow in the painting. Grisha.”
“The chandelier is gilt. A cheap product. With glass pendants.”
“Lights on. The chandelier is a museum piece, a real piece of Empire. You were asleep at the switch.
“Lights out. Kostya, describe your rug again.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know that I would be required to do it again.”
“Never sit there for one instant doing nothing. I warn you all know that I shall examine you twice, or more times, until I get an exact idea of your impressions. Leo!”
He made a startled exclamation and said: “I wasn’t noticing.”
In the end, we were forced to study our objects down to the last detail, and describe them. In my case, I was called on five times before I succeeded. This work at high pressure lasted half an hour. Our eyes were tired and our attention strained. It would have been impossible to continue any longer with such intensity. So the lesson was divided into two parts, a half-hour each. After the first part, we took a lesson in dancing. Then we went back and did exactly what we did before, except that the time of observation was cut down from thirty seconds to twenty. The Assistant Director remarked that the allowance for observation would eventually be reduced to two seconds.
The Director continued his demonstration with electric lights today.
“Up to now,” he said, “we have been dealing with objects in the form of points of light. Now I am going to show you a circle of attention. It will consist of a whole section, large or small in dimension, and will include a series of independent points of objects. The eye may pass from one to another of these points, but it must not go beyond the indicated limit of the circle of attention.”
First, there was complete darkness. A moment later a large lamp was lighted on the table near which I was seated. The shade of the lamp threw the circle of the rays down on my head and hands and made a bright light on the center of the table, where there were a number of small things. These shone and reflected all sorts of different colors. The rest of the stage and the hall were swallowed up in darkness.
“This lighted space on the table,” said the Director, “illustrates a Small Circle of Attention. You yourself, or rather your head and hands, on which the light falls, are the center of this circle.”
The effect on me was like magic. All the little knick-knacks on the table drew my attention without any forcing or any instruction on my part. In a circle of light, in the midst of darkness, you have the sensation of being entirely alone. I felt even more at home in this circle of light than in my own room.
In such a small space as this circle you can use your concentrated attention to examine various objects in their most intricate details, and also to carry on more complicated activities, such as defining shades of feeling and thought. Evidently, the Director realized my state of mind, for he came right up to the edge of the stage and said: “Make a note immediately of your mood; it is what we call Solitude in Public. You are in public because we are all here. It is solitude because you are divided from us by a small circle of attention. During a performance, before an audience of thousands, you can always enclose yourself in this circle like a snail in its shell.”
After a pause, he announced that he would now show us a Medium Circle; everything became dark; the spotlight then illumined a fairly large area, with a group of several pieces of furniture, a table, some chairs with students sitting on them, one corner of the piano, the fireplace with a big arm-chair in front of it. I found myself in the center of the medium-light circle. Of course, we could not take in everything at once, but had to examine the area bit by bit, object by object, each thing within the circle making an independent point.
The greatest drawback was that the larger area of lighting produced reflected half-tones that fell on things beyond the circle so that the wall of darkness did not seem impenetrable.
“Now you have the Large Circle,” he went on. The whole living room was flooded with light. The other rooms were dark, but soon lamps were turned on in them also, and the Director pointed out: “That is the very Largest Circle. Its dimensions depend on the length of your eyesight. Here in this room, I have extended the circle as far as is possible. But if we were standing on the seashore or on a plane, the circle would be limited only by the horizon. On the stage, such distant perspectives are furnished by the painting in the back-drop.
“Now let us try to repeat the exercises you have just done, except that this time we shall have all the lights on.”
We all sat down on the stage, around the large table, with the large lamp. I was just where I had been a few moments before, and felt for the first time the sensation of being alone in public Now we were supposed to renew this feeling in full light with only a mental outline to make the circle of attention.
When we were unsuccessful in our attempts the Director explained to us why.
“When you have a spot of light surrounded by darkness,” he said, “all the objects inside of it draw your attention because everything outside it being invisible there is no attraction there. The outlines of such a circle are so sharp and the encircling shadow so solid that you have no desire to go beyond its limits.
“When the lights are on you have an entirely different problem. As there is no obvious outline to your circle you are obliged to construct one mentally and not allow yourself to look beyond it. Your attention must now replace the light, holding you within certain limits, and this in spite of the drawing power of all sorts of objects now visible outside of it. Therefore since the conditions, with and without the spotlight, are opposite, the method of maintaining the circle must change.”
He then outlined the given area by a series of objects in the room. For instance, the round table outlined one circle, the smallest; in another part of the stage a rug, somewhat larger than the table on it, made a Medium Circle; and the largest rug in the room was defined as a Large Circle.
“Now let us take the whole apartment, the Largest Circle,” said the Director.
Here everything that had helped me up to now to concentrate failed, and—I felt powerless.
To encourage us he said:
“Time and patience will teach you how to use the method I just suggested to you. Don’t forget it and meantime I will show you another technical device which will help to direct your attention. As the circle grows larger the area of your attention must stretch. This area, however, can continue to grow only up to the point where you can still hold it all within the limits of your attention, inside an imaginary line. As soon as your border begins to waver, you must withdraw quickly to a smaller circle that can be contained by your visual attention.
“At this point, you will often get into trouble. Your attention will slip and become dissipated in space. You must collect it again and redirect it as soon as possible to one single point or object, such as, for instance, that lamp. It will not seem as bright as it did when there was darkness all around it, nevertheless, it will still have the power to hold your attention.
“When you have established that point, surround it with a small circle with the lamp at its center. Then enlarge it to a medium circle which will include several smaller ones. These will not be reinforced each by a central point. If you must have such a point, choose a new object and surround it with another small circle. Apply the same method to a medium circle.”
But each time the area of our attention was stretched to a certain point we lost control of it. As each experiment failed the Director made new attempts.
After a time he went on to another phase of the same idea.
“Have you noticed,” he said, “that up to now you have always been in the centre of the circle? Yet you may sometimes find yourself outside. For example”
Everything became dark; then a ceiling light, in the next room, was lighted, throwing a spot on the white tablecloth and the dishes.
“Now you are beyond the limits of the small circle of your attention. Your role is a passive one; one of observation. As the circle of light is extended, and the illuminated area in the dining room grows, your circle also becomes larger and larger, and the area of your observation increases in the same ratio. Also, you can use the same method of choosing points of attention in these circles that lie beyond you.”
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