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.

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