Concentration of Attention Part 02 | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski

Concentration of Attention Part 02 | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski

Concentration of Attention Part 02

An Actor Prepares

Constantin Stanislavski

When I exclaimed today that I wished I need never be separated from the small circle, the Director replied:

“You can carry it with you wherever you go, on the stage or off. Get up on the stage and walk around. Change your seat. Behave as you would if you were at home.”

I got up and took several steps in the direction of the fireplace. Everything became entirely dark; then from somewhere appeared a spotlight, that moved along with me. In spite of moving about I felt at home and comfortable in the center of a small circle. I paced up and down the room, the spotlight following me. I walked to the window and it came also, I sat down at the piano, still with the light. That convinced me that the small circle of attention that moves about with you is the most essential and practical thing I have yet learned.

To illustrate its use the Director told us a Hindu tale, about a Maharajah who, about to choose a minister, announced that he would take only the man who could walk around on top of the city walls, holding a dish full to the brim with milk, without spilling a drop. A number of candidates, yelled at, frightened, or in other ways distracted, spilled the milk. “Those,” said the Maharajah, “are no ministers.”

Concentration of Attention Part 02 | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski

Then came another, whom no scream, no threat, and no form of distraction could cause to take his eyes from the rim of the bowl.

“Fire!” said the commander of the troops.

They fired, but with no result.

“There is a real Minister,” said the Maharajah.

“Didn’t you hear the cries?” he was asked.


“Didn’t you see the attempts to frighten you?”


“Did you hear the shots?”

“No. I was watching the milk.”

As another illustration of the moving circle, this time in concrete form, we were each handed a wooden hoop. Some of these hoops were larger, some smaller, according to the size of the circle to be created. As you walk about with your hoop, you get the picture of the moving center of attention which you have to learn to carry around with you. I found it easier to adapt the suggestion about making a circle out of a series of objects. I could say to myself: from the tip of my left elbow across my body to my right elbow, including my legs that come forward as I walk, will be my circle of attention.

I found I could easily carry this circle around with me, enclose myself in it, and in it find solitude in public. Even on the way home, in the confusion of the street, in the bright sunlight, I found it much easier to draw such a line around myself and stay in it, than it was in the theatre with dimmed footlights, and with a hoop.

“Up to now we have been dealing with what we call external attention,” said the Director today. “This is directed to material objects which lie outside of ourselves.”

He went on to explain what is meant by “inner attention” which centers on things we see, hear, touch and feel in imaginary circumstances. He reminded us of what he said earlier about imagination, and how we felt that the source of a given image was internal and yet was mentally carried over to a point outside of ourselves. To the fact that we see such images with inner vision, he added that the same was true of our sense of hearing, smelling, touch and taste.

“The objects of your ‘inner attention’ are scattered through the whole range of your five senses,” he said.

“An actor on the stage lives inside or outside of himself. He lives a real or imaginary life. This abstract life contributes an unending source of material for our inner concentration of attention. The difficulty in using it lies in the fact that it is fragile. Material things around us on the stage call for well-trained attention, but imaginary objects demand an even far more disciplined power of concentration.

“What I said on the subject of external attention, in earlier lessons, applies an equal degree to inner attention.

“The inner attention is of particular importance to an actor because so much of his life takes place in the realm of imaginary circumstances.

“Outside of work in the theatre, this training must be carried over into your daily lives. For this purpose, you can use the exercises we developed for the imagination, as they are equally effective for concentrating attention.

“When you have gone to bed at night and put out your light, train yourself to go over your whole day, and try to put in every possible concrete detail. If you are recalling a meal, don’t just remember the food, but visualize the dishes on which it was served, and their general arrangement. Bring back all the thoughts and inner emotions which were touched by your conversation at the meal. At other times refresh your earlier memories.

“Make an effort to review in detail the apartments, rooms, and various places where you have happened to take a walk, or drunk tea, and visualize individual objects connected with these activities. Try also to recall, as vividly as possible, your friends and also strangers, and even others who have passed away. That is the only way to develop a strong, sharp, solid power of inner and outer attention. To accomplish this requires prolonged and systematic work.

“Conscientious daily work means that you must have a strong will, determination, and endurance.”

At our lesson today the Director said:

“We have been experimenting with outer and inner attention, and making use of objects in a mechanical, photographic, formal way. “We have had to do with arbitrary attention, intellectual in its origin. This is necessary for actors but not very frequently. It is particularly useful in collecting attention that has strayed. The simple looking at an object helps to fix it. But it cannot hold you for long. To grasp your object firmly when you are acting you need another type of attention, which causes an emotional reaction. You must have something which will interest you in the object of your attention, and serve to set in motion your whole creative apparatus.

Concentration of Attention Part 02 | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski

“It is, of course, not necessary to endow every object with an imaginary life, but you should be sensitive to its influence on you.”

As an example of the distinction between attention based on intellect, and that based on feeling, he said:

“Look at this antique chandelier. It dates back to the days of the Emperor. How many branches have it? What is its form, its design?

“You have been using your external, intellectual attention in examining that chandelier. Now I want you to tell me this: do you like it? If so, what is it that especially attracts you? What can it be used for? You can say to yourself: this chandelier may have been in the house of some Field Marshal when he received Napoleon. It may even have hung in the French Emperor’s own room when he signed the historic act concerning the regulations of the The´aˆtre Francais in Paris.

“In this case, your object has remained unchanged. But now you know that imagined circumstances can transform the object itself and heighten the reaction of your emotions to it.”

Vassili said today that it seemed to him not only difficult but impossible to be thinking at one and the same time about your role, technical methods, the audience, the words of your part, your cues, and several points of attention as well.

“You feel powerless in the face of such a task,” said the Director, “and yet any simple juggler in a circus would have no hesitation in handling far more complicated things, risking his life as he does it.

“The reason why he can do this is that attention is built in many layers and they do not interfere with one another. Fortunately, habit makes a large part of your attention automatic. The most difficult time is in the early stages of learning.

“Of course, if you have thought up to now that an actor relies merely on inspiration you will have to change your mind. Talent without work is nothing more than raw unfinished material.”

There followed a discussion with Grisha about the fourth wall, the question being how to visualize an object on it without looking at the audience. The Director’s answer to this was:

“Let us suppose that you are looking at this non-existent fourth wall. It is very near. How should your eyes focus? Almost at the same angle as if you were looking at the tip of your nose. That is the only way in which you can fix your attention on an imaginary object on that fourth wall.

“And yet what do most actors do? Pretending to look at this imaginary wall they focus their eyes on someone in the orchestra. Their angle of vision is quite different from what it must be to see a nearby object. Do you think that the actor himself, the person opposite to whom he is playing, or the spectator, gets any real satisfaction from such a physiological error? Can he successfully fool either his own nature or ours by doing something so abnormal?

“Suppose your part calls for looking over to the horizon on the ocean, where the sail of a vessel is still visible. Do you remember how your eyes will be focused to see it? They will be looking in almost parallel lines. To get them into that position, when you are standing on the stage, you must mentally remove the wall at the far end of the auditorium and find, far beyond it, an imaginary point on which you can fix your attention. Here again an actor will usually let his eyes focus as though he were looking at someone in the orchestra.

“When, by the aid of the required technique, you learn how to put an object in its right place, when you understand the relation of vision to distance, then it will be safe for you to look toward the auditorium, letting your vision go beyond the spectators or stop this side of them. For the present, turn your face to the right or to the left, above or sideways. Do not be afraid that your eyes will not be seen. Moreover, when you feel the natural necessity to do so, you will find that yours will of their own accord turn towards an object beyond the footlights. When this happens it will be done naturally, instinctively, and rightly. Unless you feel this subconscious need, avoid looking at that non-existing fourth wall, or into the distance, until you have mastered the technique with which it can be done.”

Concentration of Attention Part 02 | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski

At our lesson today the Director said:

“An actor should be observant not only on the stage but also in real life. He should concentrate with all his being on whatever attracts his attention. He should look at an object, not as any absent-minded passer-by, but with penetration. Otherwise, his whole creative method will prove lopsided and bear no relation to life.

“There are people gifted by nature with powers of observation. Without effort, they form a sharp impression of whatever is going on around them, in themselves, and in others. Also, they know how to cull out of these observations whatever is most significant, typical, or colorful. When you hear such people talk you are struck by the amount that an unobservant person misses.

“Other people are unable to develop this power of observation even sufficiently to preserve their own simplest interests. How much less able, then, are they to do it for the sake of studying life itself.

“Average people have no conception of how to observe the facial expression, the look of the eye, the tone of the voice, in order to comprehend the state of mind of the persons with whom they talk. They can neither actively grasp the complex truths of life nor listen in a way to understand what they hear. If they could do this, life, for them, would be better and easier, and their creative work immeasurably richer, finer, and deeper. But you cannot put into a person what he does not possess; he can only try to develop whatever power he may have. In the field of attention, this development calls for a tremendous amount of work, time, desire to succeed, and systematic practice.

“How can we teach unobservant people to notice what nature and life are trying to show them? First of all, they must be taught to look at, listen to, and hear what is beautiful. Such habits elevate their minds and arouse feelings that will leave deep traces in their emotional memories. Nothing in life is more beautiful than nature, and it should be the object of constant observation. To begin with, take a little flower, or a petal from it, or a spider web, or a design made by frost on the window pane. Try to express in words what it is in these things that give pleasure. Such an effort causes you to observe the object more closely, more effectively, in order to appreciate it and define its qualities. And do not shun the darker side of nature. Look for it in marshes, in the slime of the sea, amid plagues of insects, and remember that hidden behind these phenomena there is beauty, just as in loveliness there is unloveliness. What is truly beautiful has nothing to fear from disfigurement. Indeed, disfigurement often emphasizes and sets off the beauty in higher relief.

“Search out both beauty and its opposite, and define them, learn to know and to see them. Otherwise, your conception of beauty will be incomplete, saccharine, prettified, and sentimental.

“Next turn to what the human race has produced in art, literature, music.

“At the bottom of every process of obtaining creative material for our work is emotion. Feeling, however, does not replace an immense amount of work on the part of our intellects. Perhaps you are afraid that the little touches which your mind may add on its own account will spoil your material drawn from life? Never fear that. Often these original additions enhance it greatly if your belief in them is sincere.

“Let me tell you about an old woman I once saw trundling a baby carriage along a boulevard. In it was a cage with a canary. Probably the woman had placed all her bundles in the carriage to get them home more easily. But I wanted to see things in a different light, so I decided that the poor old woman had lost all of her children and grandchildren and the only living creature left in her life was—this canary. So she was taking him out for a ride on the boulevard, just as she had done, not long before, her grandson, now lost. All this is more interesting and suited to the theatre than the actual truth. Why should I not tuck that impression into the storehouse of my memory? I am not a census taker, who is responsible for collecting exact facts. I am an artist who must have material that will stir my emotions.

Concentration of Attention Part 02 | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski

“After you have learned how to observe life around you and draw on it for your work you will turn to the study of the most necessary, important, and living emotional material on which your main creativeness is based. I mean those impressions which you get from direct, personal intercourse with other human beings. This material is difficult to obtain because in large part it is intangible, indefinable, and only inwardly perceivable. To be sure, many invisible, spiritual experiences are reflected in our facial expressions, in our eyes, voice, speech, and gestures, but even so, it is no easy thing to sense another’s inmost being, because people do not often open the doors of their souls and allow others to see them as they really are.

“When the inner world of someone you have under observation becomes clear to you through his acts, thoughts, and impulses, follow his actions closely and study the conditions in which he finds himself. Why did he do this or that? What did he have in his mind?

“Very often we cannot come through definite data to know the inner life of the person we are studying, and can only reach towards it by means of intuitive feeling. Here we are dealing with the most delicate type of concentration of attention, and with powers of observation that are subconscious in their origin. Our ordinary type of attention is not sufficiently far-reaching to carry out the process of penetrating another person’s soul.

“If I were to assure you that your technique could achieve so much I should be deceiving you. As you progress you will learn more and more ways in which to stimulate your subconscious selves and draw them into your creative process, but it must be admitted that we cannot reduce this study of the inner life of other human beings to a scientific technique.”


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