Known to the theater chiefly as an actor and playwright, you might think I would consider the most important word in theater to be “yes”. “Yes, Mark you have the part.” “Yes, we’re producing your new show.” “Yes, Mr. Violi, the girl up front has your check.” Before we can get to these all important validations we might think about what single word can best be applied to our successful advantage across all theatrical disciplines.
Whether our role is actor, playwright, producer, director or stage manager I submit the word we all need to better embrace is: Focus.
I love the dictionary.com definition. It falls right in line with the points I will try to make:
“a central point, as of attraction, attention, or activity”
For The Actor: Focus Your Attention
As an actor focus takes two main forms. First is the technical focus needed to learn your lines and remember your blocking. This should take place early in the rehearsal process. Allowing yourself sufficient time for these tasks helps everyone and gives you more time later in the process to focus on the second part of acting.
The second part of acting is actually “acting”. Focusing your attention through your character, into his needs, desires and setbacks. Focus on these and use your instincts as you focus with your scene partners and take in their characters’ wants and needs.
Focus as an actor. Know what your character is saying and what is being said to him. We are often advised to ‘listen” on stage to what is going on. And I say “focus” on the scene and your fellow players. If “acting” really is “doing”, then focus on doing. This should carry through all your rehearsals and performances.
This immersion in a role takes many forms and methods and varies by performer. But whatever your methods, if you can find this character focus, I promise it will pay dividends in your performance.
For The Director: Focus The Action
Know where the focus lies and focus the action on stage. This is one of the most important aspects to keeping a show interesting, getting the most from a production number and telling your story effectively. Of course this crosses the lines of acting and directing.
“Everything an actor does on stage
affects the focus of a given moment.”
Everything an actor does on stage affects the focus of a given moment, scene or piece. If you’re a background player, please don’t call attention to yourself when the drama is clearly not yours to claim. If the ingénue is telling her fiancé that her dad wants to kill him, I don’t need to see the cop on the corner twirling his baton and whistling. This diffuses the focus.
Focus will shift often and actors must adjust. This can be simply physically moving out of the way but is often more subtle. Musicals may have two dozen focus shifts in just one number. Everyone needs to adjust.
And directors, most actors don’t know about focus. You need to tell them. And tell them about this focus theory. Fragile as actors often are they need to understand that we are all storytellers and not everyone can be the focus all the time.
The next occasion you have to see a well-directed professional play take note that everything moves in beats. This is directing the focus and makes it easy and pleasurable for an audience to offer our attention to a scene. It also greatly increases clarity of words and themes.
If, as a director, the point of focus is ever unclear, please reread the scene or the entire book looking for the words and reading between the lines to locate the writer’s intention. It is probably in the words. Very rarely it is not. Create the focus yourself if you must but everything—every moment—needs a point of attraction.
If a playwright has omitted or confused the focus, I hope she reads the following…
For The Playwright: Focus Your Story
The term “log line” is more commonly used in screenwriting but is essential to all story structure. This is a single sentence (or possibly two) that describe your story. Decide what this is. Focus on it and let your story and characters develop around this main focus of your story.
What is your story about? Using my play Riding The Comet as an example: I could answer that many ways as the piece has multiple themes. Each response could be based around a character(s) and what they are after. But the best answer to “What is Riding The Comet about?” is “Fear.” That is the broader theme.
A play may have multiple themes and story lines but they need to work with each other. All the leaves must grow from the same branch. And they can’t all be at the forefront. The forefront of Riding The Comet is how Linette deals with her fear. That is the focus. The other characters enrich and texture the story, but they all really serve to enhance and contrast Linette’s story.
Many new works I see and read try to incorporate too much into one play. Often this takes the form of social issues. There’s nothing wrong with this being your theme but trying to work in poverty, abortion, suicide, religion, cat abuse, save-the-whales and divorce into the same piece is too much. Focus, please.
Writing with a single focus in mind will help you stay on track and finish your script. It will be easier to talk about and market to others. Simply put, it is a better, more effective story.
Complete volumes may be—and have been—written about the above topics. Hopefully I’ve given you something to think about that may help improve your next creative project for the stage.
As always, I encourage you to leave your comments.