Cultivating Focus is Absolutely Essential for Good Acting
Okay, it’s now 4:24am and I’m going to focus and write this whole article in an hour. Aw, I did take some time the last hour looking up quotes and making coffee to coddle myself awake. But it usually takes me 4 to 8 hours of muddling over an article to get it done. I write a line, go away and do something else, spark an idea and return to write another line. Instead, I’m going to practice the focus, or concentration, I learned as an actor to complete this task in the allotted time. So here goes!
If you wonder how some people write 50 books in a few short years, the answer is focus. If you wonder how ballet dancers take class all day and perform night after night, the answer is focus. And if you wonder how some actors, like Al Pacino, do huge bodies of disciplined work in their lifetimes, the answer is always the same . . . focus.
I knew Al slightly while an observer at the Actor’s Studio in the 1970’s. The nicest, most generous guy you’d ever hope to meet. But Pacino is also fiercely focused about his acting. And figuring out how to make a part or a theatrical experience work. If you’re interested in seeing how he does that, I urge you to see the film, Looking for Richard. After all, he once said, “either I act or I die.”
Pacino and I had the same teacher, Lee Strasberg. Strasberg was big on focus and concentration. As a matter of fact, he explained in the book, Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio, that his inspiration, Stanislavski, “found that the only sure thing that the actor has in order to combat and do away with tension is concentration”. Strasberg went on to say that concentration entails a real object to focus on . . . in his Method it was remembering an object with the senses. For Grotowski, focus was about intense physical exertion to initiate specific images that tap into an actor’s emotional life. Meisner encouraged actors to “transfer the point of concentration to some object outside of yourself – another person, a puzzle, a broken plate that you are gluing.” Meisner used repetition, preparation and concentration on objects and activities to coax out deeper levels of focus. As Larry Silverberg, who wrote so eloquently about Meisner’s technique, has said, “you cannot make yourself more available, you can only invite it and encourage it to occur.”
You make yourself more available and develop focus by committing yourself to doing whatever technique training you have chosen. For however long it takes. And not just scene study either. We spent at least an hour in supremely uncomfortable molded plastic chairs doing relaxation and Sense Memory in every Method class I took for years. And were encouraged to do the same daily. Ugh! But when you force yourself to explore layers of yourself, when concentrating on just moving your middle finger in every way for half-an-hour to see if you can attain a deeper level of relaxation in that digit alone, or moving the sensation of cold from a tiny pinprick of feeling to all over your body and back again, you develop such a deep focus that you can literally do anything. The exploration eventually also becomes joyfully addictive and a necessary part of your daily life.
So when you channel this learned focus into a performance . . . when you arrive with all the shards of your work on the character and your preparation for stepping into the moment floating availably around you, amazing things happen. Many years ago, when I was a UCLA student, I did a play called The Recruiting Officer. My friend, who was acting one of the leads, had a motorcycle accident hours before a performance. And completed the entire show, including fencing, leaping, fighting, as well as numerous costume changes, before we had to take him to the emergency room . . . with a broken wrist. Lynn Redgrave once explained that “when you’re concentrating very hard on something else, you are unable to feel pain.”
Years later, in a run of Rashomon, an actress friend was bashed in the head with a prop sword during a performance. Blood streaming, still in character, she gasped, “don’t worry, honorable husband. It is nothing. Continue on”, and left the stage. Moments later, cleaned up and focused, she returned and finished the play. If you’ve acted for awhile, I’m sure you have your own superhuman stories of acting focus to tell. Perhaps you’ve even experienced some yourself.
So, imagine now if you took this almost superhuman focus and used it in every aspect of your life. Elia Kazan said, “I’ve come to believe that everything worth achieving is beyond one’s capacity – or seems so at first. The thing is to persist, not back off, fight your fight, pay your dues, and carry on. Effort is all; continue and you may get there despite everything.” Brain Bates, in The Way of the Actor, has called actors “supreme visualizers”. I think they’re also “supreme focusers”. Because if you focus on happily visualizing your success, and believe in that vision. And then go out and do the work and whatever it takes to succeed without doubting it for a minute how can you not. By the way, this process we’re talking about is called manifesting. No real mystic mumbo-jumbo here . . . just focus.
Okay, it’s 5:59 and I’m done. Not an hour, but a lot faster than I’m used to working. And I took some time to wander about the house, consult my quotes, and edit a bit to boot. Time for breakfast. I think I’ll make an omelet. All blessings!
“Forget the career, do the work. If you feel what you are doing is on line and you’re going someplace and you have a vision and you stay with it, eventually things will happen.” – Al Pacino
Leave Your Comments About Focus! Below
How do you achieve focus in your acting? Do you use your imagination? Sensory objects? Or both? What else do you do to attain focus?