The following article is reprinted from Fall 2000 edition of the Soul of an American Actor

The Actor’s Challenge


For performers, attention is a bodily act informed by choice, sustained by will, shaped by intention, taking place in time. To engage an audience an actor requires a specific quality of attention. The key qualities of this "performance attention" are spatial, relational, energetic and temporal.

The actor works with a specific kind of spatial awareness. In performance he sends and directionally aims his attention out into space. He also allows it to be constantly shaped by place. Space becomes relational when the performer involves himself in multiple interactions between himself and the audience, with other actors playing characters. Also several dynamics occur within the performer himself. Performance attention requires actors to juggle a constant stream of inner and outer conversations between language and silence, movement and stillness. As the performer fuels the work with his own particular life force, it becomes energetic as it expresses itself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Finally, as the performer's attention is continuously informed by the exact nature of the moment at hand, it becomes temporal, calling forth constant choices and adjustments on his part. Great actors like Ben Kingsley, Joseph Chaikin and Olympia Dukakis are perfect examples who can lead the audience's attention by first focusing their attention.

During the last few performances I was privileged to see Ben Kingsley perform his one-man show, Kean, on his first night back after his eye operation. He gently came forward, fully dressed in a heavily jeweled period costume; he had not yet become Edmund Kean, the wild-eyed great tragedian of a hundred years ago.

He paused, took time to take the entire audience into his gaze, then smiled, and softly said, "Tonight is my first night back and I thought it was important to tell you, that I have to make some adjustments. My doctor has told me clearly what I can and cannot do during this performance tonight. This does mean there will be limits. Still, I wanted so very much to be here and play for you tonight. We'll see how it goes."

Moments later, a booming, ranting Kean swept on in full regalia like some great ship arriving in a busy port of eager people. Ben Kingsley expertly juggled the multiple tasks at hand in his multiple roles as a dependable professional and a consummate character actor. Significantly, he first took care of his own well being. And, convincingly manifested all the behaviors, urges, and struggles of the character. When the play was done, both the audience and actor had co-created the central story of the night together.

Actors like Kingsley have a lot to teach about attention. Their knowledge comes from years of training in the hot and heady light of public work.

The craft of attention involves what Kingsley manifested: the capacity to fill up space and change its atmosphere, the capacity to suspend but not deny the personal favor of the larger goals which include character, story, and plot. A deep urge to communicate, and the ability to focus one's mind and then to energetically transmit this focus to an audience are also part of the craft. To hold the attention of the audience, an actor needs the bodily strength, flexibility, physical stamina and verbal endurance to stay with an objective, as well as the courage to interact intimately, publicly and unexpectedly with the moment at hand and with the people present in it. These are teachable skills.

What is not teachable is the particular and essential giftedness which emanates from exceptional performers like Kingsley. To benefit from the mysterious alchemy, which blends such an artist's values, temperament, intellect, instinct and sheer force of spirit, an audience needs a place itself in his presence. And then, the living-breathing actor transmits a way of being, which infuses, and gifts audiences as only live performance can.

Attention is a choice. It is an effort. It is a response to attraction and for engagement. The root word of attention is "attendere" which means, "to stay with someone," "to wait or to wait upon," and also "to be present with, to accompany." "Attendere " stems from the Latin root words meaning, to stretch," "to apply the mind to.

To maintain attention onstage an actor must make split-second prioritizing decisions as to where to place both her own attention and that of the audience in each ongoing moment. In addition to focusing her mental energy, a great performer also evidences the acutely physical bodily nature of attention. This look of alert focus in akin to that, of a magnificent lion ready to pounce or of the steady grace of a blue heron as it waits for visible evidence of its next meal.

The process of attention also involves the simultaneous orchestration of several other variables of the performer's own focus on the task, of the audience's response or lack of it to what she's doing, and of the energetic exchange generated between them. This is tricky stuff. If the actor is too self-absorbed she loses the audience. But if she is too focused on them, she breaks their belief in the imaginary world of the play. Whenever an actor focuses more on being observed than on observing she is in trouble. She needs to consistently send out and receive the kind of attention which leads both the actor and the audience into immersion. Otherwise, the flow of attention will be broken between them.

A good actor gathers dispersed distractions into an ever-shifting picture of a shared imagined world which the audience creates with her, by choosing to focus their attention on her. In leading and conducting both the audience's attention and their energy, the actor succeeds as a guide and focuser. She also acts as a kind of conjurer who lures the audience to create images and to make relevant connections between their own lives and what's happening upon the stage. When all this works well, actor and audience continuously co-create the imaginary world of the play in such a way that it feels real. As George Morrison says: "The audience creates the play for themselves when they begin to form images along with the actor."

The actor's challenge then is to conduct this interplay of inner dynamics and outer energies in order to shape the pulsing, delicate collaboration that is live theatre.*2000

Excerpts from Acting As A Way* Spiritual Practices For The Actor In Everyone. Published with the permission of the author.

The task is for the actor to keep his attention centered on what he is doing, and to create the reality and truthfulness of each imaginary object or experience. – Lee Strasberg