The Importance of Distraction

Notes from a recent theatre workshop

We worked with the theme of distraction, on stage and in life.

Each actor chose a short monologue, which they performed in front of the group who sat in a traditional audience seating. At the end of the performance the actor reflected on any distractions that had helped or hinder their performance. Distractions seemed to take them out of character, even if only for a moment, but it was enough to dilute the performance and some members of the audience could immediately tell. Distractions included a cough from an audience member, or a noise from outside. Another distraction was more “inner” and would be an inner voice saying something like “this is where you usually forget a line”. In some actors this inner voice couldn’t be stilled and created a duality in the person, which meant they were never fully “into the part”. In others this vice came only occasionally at moments of “distraction” so a voice would interrupt and say, “you’ve lost it. You might as well give up.” One or two actors experienced no distraction at all and their performances were more electric and affecting for the audience.

Then we took it further. The performances were repeated ad this time audience members were allowed to fidget and talk during the performance For some of course, this made things worse. The distraction became “annoying” and the actor stalled or “corpsed”. Other actors started using “strategies” to deal with the distraction and began to become angrier and their performances became exaggerated. One actor realised he always and involuntarily looked towards the distraction but carried on, drawn towards it like a magnet. Again a few actors were so totally into their part that the distraction had no effect. One actor found the distractions did change their performance subconsciously and in ways that actually “enhanced” the performance – a cough, for example, created a pause that actually created a nice subtle effect in the way the proceeding lines were spoken, more reflectively.

The actors who got “annoyed” and allowed their inner voice to say “how dare they” or “its all going wrong” were allowing a kind of vanity to creep in that detracted from the quality of their performance. There are bound to be distractions in this noisy world. Audiences tend to fidget more, they have mobile phones, and all kinds of paraphernalia they fiddle with, not to mention the sweet and chocolates! And sometimes and utterly silent audiences that are “behaving” can feel noisier than a more easier but less silent “quiet”! And of course, in some causes, a cough or a creaking chair is an audience members enraptured response to what s occurring onstage and can actually help to innovate the performance in subtle ways.

One further step! This time the audience were allowed to actually get up and walk on the stage during the performance. We went even further – they were allowed to physically distract the actor, even physically prevent him or her to move to desired parts of the performance area. Again, some actors stalled and “Lost it”. Others found they had to access much deeper levels of themselves and sink much more into the character to maintain the same intensity. A few realised from this exercise that WITHOUT this distraction they would never have discovered these untapped areas of energy and concentration. SO distraction can help us to find boundaries and cross them to access deeper levels of ourselves as humans and performance. It is the effort of overcoming that releases this energy. And the performance can be all the better for it.

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