The Fine Art of Focus

I talk a lot about “focus” when directing a Gilbert and Sullivan production — or any live theater, for that matter.

Theater is completely different from film or television.  When a story is unfolding on a screen you certainly see the actors’ work — but only the bits of it that the director and editor want you to see.  There are wide shots and close-ups; and all sorts of other ways to guide the audience’s attention.

In theater, the audience has the option to look at whatever they want whenever they want.  That’s why we have to use all the tricks at our disposal to guide their focus.

Lighting is a big help.  Specials and follow spots are great ways to tell the audience where to focus their attention.

Staging is also a good tool. The actor who is downstage center, or on the highest level of the set, is generally the one you should be watching.

But most of the work of directing the audience’s attention falls squarely on the shoulders of the actors.  And it can be a mighty difficult job when upwards of forty people are on the stage.

I like to tell the cast they always have the option of pulling focus, throwing focus, or stealing focus. No matter what, when you’re onstage you’re doing one of these three things.

Pulling focus is perhaps the easiest.  Step forward, raise your hand, make a sound — any of these will draw the audience’s attention.  The key here is that only one actor, or one cohesive group of actors, can effectively pull focus at a time.

Throwing focus is often the simple act of not pulling focus.  Looking at the actor who is pulling focus will help to throw the audience’s attention to that actor.  And sometimes just being still and silent — actively not pulling focus — will suffice.

Stealing focus is the bane of the stage.

Stealing focus is essentially pulling focus when you shouldn’t.  If you’re pulling focus to yourself at the wrong time, you’re stealing it from another actor.

Overzealous reactions can steal focus.  Erratic movements can steal focus. Self-involvement can steal focus.

If there’s an actor delivering a monolgue while thirty chorus members watch, and someone upstage left decides it’s time to scratch her ear, or brush the hair out of his eyes, or shift position to get a better view of the action, or whisper something to a castmate — that person is stealing focus.

Mistakes also steal focus.  Sadly, an actor who doesn’t correctly execute otherwise unified stage movement or choreography is stealing focus.  Even going up on your lines can steal focus — anything that makes the audience think of the actor rather than the character. It’s an accidental and unintentional steal, but it’s stealing nontheless.

Why am I taking the time to write about pulling, throwing and stealing focus?  Especially when we’ve just closed a show?

Because my own skills in this area are about to be put to the test.

I’m currently rehearsing to perform in a production in which my character is onstage for the entire show.  He enters at the beginning and, while other actors come and go, he never exits.  But he’s not the star by any means.  While he is featured in some scenes, he is merely in the periphery of others — not gone, but not actively participating.

He also doesn’t necessarily “see” nor react to the scenes he’s not in.

So I’m currently exploring the fine art of Not Stealing Focus.

I can’t fall asleep.  I can’t scratch an itch.  I can’t sneeze.  I can’t take a drink of water. I can’t yawn.  I can’t laugh at a funny moment onstage.  These all seem like simple enough objectives, but any one of these actions would certainly steal focus.

What’s more, some audience members will undoubtedly look at me while I’m on the periphery.  So I can never relax.  I’ll have to be at least mildly interesting so they don’t wonder why that lifless lump is sitting over there.  But I’ve got to be unintersting enough for them to quickly forget about me and focus their attention back on the play.

My objective is not to be frozen, but suspended in a state of quiet stillness.

Of course I also have to be attentive and ready to strongly pull focus when the time comes.

I give my Durham Savoyards cast a hard time about controlling focus onstage.  I’m always calling individual actors out for stealing focus; and suggesting ways to be gently active and interesting while throwing focus where it needs to be.

So I’m especially grateful for this opportunity to practice what I preach.

The show is “Marjorie Prime” by Jordan Harrison;  Running April 27 through May 13 at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Just a quick note of congratulations and thanks to all the folks involved in “The Grand Duke.” After months of good old-fashioned work and dedication on everyone’s part, it was a joy to see the various elements come together to form one beautiful and cohesive production!

Now it’s on to the next one…

If watching the show perhaps inspired you to join us onstage, make plans to audition for our productions of “Thespis” and “Trial by Jury” in the fall.

Public Sing-through: Sunday May 7 @ 2 PM

Auditions: May 22 and 23 by appointment. Click here for details/information. 

Callbacks: May 25 by invitation.

Performances: October 12-15.

Hope you to see you at auditions!


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Grand Opening

“The Grand Duke” had a grand opening last night!

You have two more chances to catch a performance.  Tonight at 7 PM and tomorrow at 2 PM.

Grand Duke 1

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Preview Pickles

I like pickles.  (More about that later.)

I arrived early to the theater for pre-show prep before tonight’s preview performance of “The Grand Duke.”  I had three specific problems to solve. And I wanted to be there when the actors arrived so I could have as much time as possible to work through the possible solutions.

All three actors in question showed up early as well!  First problem practically solved itself.  Second problem only took a few moments; and its resolution was an absolute joy to behold as it unfolded.  Third problem took a bit longer, but was also easily resolved — and was a lesson in the art of editing.

So, less than an hour after arriving at the theater, everything was settled. And I had some time to burn.

I ran out to a nearby deli (yes, downtown Durham now has a deli!) and ordered a salad to go.  At the last minute I said, “Can I also have a pickle?”  I was told the salad came with a pickle. But I insisted on paying for another one just the same.  ‘Cause I like pickles.

To-go bag in hand, I returned to the theater; saw that everything was in order and going according to schedule; found a quiet spot; and sat down to eat my salad and pickles.

The pickle I’d paid extra for was in a separate bag. I ate it first.  Then I opened my salad and found there was… No. Pickle. In. The. Salad.

I’m certain it was an accident.  But I’d paid extra for a second pickle and they’d basically just taken the “free” pickle out of my salad and put it in another bag. I wasn’t happy.

Funny how the euphoria of having a show ready to open, and of solving three last-minute problems with relative ease can be dampened by being shorted one pickle.

Mid-grumble, I noticed the house had opened and there were lots of people in the theater.  It was a really big turnout, and the show was about to begin!

My missing pickle suddenly forgotten, I quickly touched base with the crew to make sure we were ready to go. Then I took a seat in the house.

The lights dimmed, the murmuring crowd hushed in anticipation…. and then, low and behold, Theater was made.

The cast, the crew, the orchestra — they all brought it. And the audience dug right in!

I’ll just say this: if tonight’s performance had been a deli to-go bag, there would’ve been plenty of pickles for everyone!

Opening Night is Friday, March 31 at 8 PM.  There’s another performance Saturday, April 1 at 7 PM.  And we close with a 2 PM matinee on Sunday, April 2.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Brave New World

I lied.

Yesterday I described “The Frenzy” of our dress rehearsal and promised we’d do it all again tonight.  But we didn’t. Not exactly

While those thousand independent and overlapping things were certainly happening again, tonight — our final dress rehearsal — was about as calm and un-frenzied as it could be.  Everywhere I went before the run-through, folks were focused and quietly going about their business.  Set pieces were being placed on the stage. Hair was being styled and make-up was being applied. Musicians were warming up. Costumes were being ironed. Actors were reviewing scenes and choreography.  Everyone had a clearly defined job and everyone was doing their job as expected.  Far from a frenzy, there was an energized hush about it all.

I almost felt extraneous.

Oh, there was a hitch or two. But the theater was filled with a calm certainty which tells me one thing — we’re ready for the kick in the pants that only you can give us!

Adrenaline, butterflies, stage-fright.  That’s what we need.  We need to stand in the wings listening to the anticipatory murmur of a crowd in the house.  And then we need to bravely/anxiously step onto the stage as if for the very first time.

One of the oddities of theater is that it doesn’t really exist until it has an audience.  Up until now we’ve had rehearsals and run-throughs, but not performances.  Not theater.

That all changes tomorrow (actually today at this point).

It’s like that tree falling in the forest — does it make a sound if no one is there?

Preview Performance is today — Thursday, March 30 at 8 PM. 

Grand Duke 4.jpg

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Frenzy


I walked into the theater carrying a box of fabrics and costumes, a new prop, and a shoulder bag weighed down with script, score and laptop.

Before my eyes had adjusted to the dim light; while I was still standing there holding probably fifty pounds of varous items, I heard, “There he is.”

So I dumped my stuff onto the nearest surface (strictly against backstage protocol) and went to work on solving problem number one for the evening.

Let me pause here to make it crystal clear that I’m not complaining.  I’m just giving you a hint of what it can be like for a director during tech week.  At this point in the process my job is to make final decisions and to help resolve any problems which may arise with the actors, the crew, the design team,  the production staff, the set, the costumes, the props, the lights, or any other vital component of our production.

I walked in tonight with a plan for what I needed to accomplish.  But I immediately had to “acquiesce” — which is what I always advise my cast and crew to do.  Have goals, but be prepared to go with the flow when you enter the theater — that sacred space where a thousand independent and overlapping things are happening at the same time in preparation for “the show”.

I addressed that first issue, which was about the set.  Then I addressed an issue with props.  I answered the same question at least seven times to various people I encountered backstage.  I worked on a set dressing project in the hallway — where I was blocking the traffic pattern of cast members going to and from the costume room. I received several progress reports. I answered some more questions. I went into the house and talked through some issues with the stage manager and lighting designer. I went backstage again and touched base with actors on specific notes I’d given from last night’s rehearsal. I made corrections to the pre-show set-up.  Then I watched and took notes on Act I.  During intermission I gave notes to the lighting designer and board operator.  I weighed in on changes/additions to the Act II set.  Meanwhile I’d thought further on that first set issue, and I gave my new ideas to the crew.  I discussed mic placement with the sound technician. Then I watched and took notes on Act II.  Afterward, I re-worked the curtain call; gave more notes to the lighting designer and stage manager; answered more questions in the hallway backstage; told departing actors they’d done a good job, to get some rest; gently dealt with some personality conflicts; and gave notes to the costume crew.  On my way out, I touched base with the producer and gave feedback to the ochestra supervisor.  Then I drove home, where I found several show-related emails waiting.  I answered those.  Then I sent a few more of my own.  I typed up my notes from the run-through and sent them out to the cast.  And then I wrote this.

Now.  Here’s something I can promise you.  Every cast member, every member of the production staff, the technical crew, and the design team; everyone involved in those “thousand independent and overlapping things” had an equally full evening.   And we’ll do it all again tomorrow.

God Bless Us Every One.

The run-through — with orchestra, costumes, hair, make-up — went very well, by the way!  We’re rip-roarin’ and ready for our first Preview Performance on Thursday!!


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The First Fleeting Day

We’re in!

The set crew started bright and early and spent the entire day loading in and installing the platforms, columns, trees, frames, carts and many other pieces that make up our complex and ever-changing set design. The costume and props crews were also there unloading, organizing, and working on finishing touches.

The cast arrived early in the evening and, after taking care of some initial spacing and reconfiguration issues, we ran the show in its entirety.    While we did stop once or twice to make corrections and/or resolve issues, it was pretty much a clean run — with almost everything working the way we’d planned.  The few things which didn’t work just right have been re-imagined and now work like a charm.

So…. Our show fits on our set.  That’s our first big hurdle of the week!

Tomorrow night we’ll add costumes, hair, make-up, stage lights, follow spot — and the orchestra!

Reminder:  Preview Performance is Thursday night (8PM).  We then perform Friday (8PM), Saturday (7PM), and Sunday (2PM).  Please join us if you can!

Grand Duke 2.jpg

The Grand Duke (Stuart Albert) wants to see YOU at the Carolina Theater this weekend!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment