Focus and Gaze in Acting

Introducing Gazing

Our gaze into the world can take many different forms as we attempt to grasp and make sense of the reality we find ourselves in. We can take a deep interest in the world attempting to penetrate with our gaze to the very heart of things. Or we can set more store by the reality of our inner world, living a life of introspection. Living life with a “gaze that stops at the eyes” has disadvantages if we want to understand and solve problems or address questions that are firmly rooted in the world outside of us.

I like to characterise two stereotypical “gazes” that can aid in understanding the different approaches we can take to solving problems.

The first “gaze” I call “the point on the tip of the nose”. The second is the “broad and shallow sweep.”.

The Gaze at The Point on the Tip of the Nose

When I focus on the point on the tip of my nose, I am self-focused. Just as in photography where a clear focus on a near object is achieved at the expense of a blurred background, the point of focus will be very important and of interest to me with less importance attached to the world at large. As I walk along the street I find it hard to meet the gaze or eye contact of others, I bump into lampposts, and have a certain indifference to the world around me. Anyone or anything, which tries to take my gaze away from the point on the tip of my nose, I meet with suspicion. At an extreme, I have no desire for contact with the rest of humanity except perhaps for a chosen few who do not interfere with my chosen focus and indeed, who may be part of that chosen focus (a over, a group of friends, an enemy). Keeping the gaze on the point of the tip of the nose requires a lot of energy, an exercise of the will, until it becomes habitual and then becomes hard to break.

The gaze at the point on the tip of the nose gives us rich, detailed information about one particular of object of observation. It is a narrow view, which excludes the whole picture in favor of a detailed, utterly intensive view on one thing (or several things). We are one inch wide but five miles deep.

The Broad and Shallow Sweep

In the Broad and Shallow Sweep, the point on the tip of the nose is hardly noticed at all. The broad and shallow sweep is similar in photography to the photograph that has a large landscape in clear focus but with near objects blurred as a result. We see the forest but not the immediate flower. The broad sweep gives us a wide range of different kinds of information but at the expense of depth. We lose the near focus in favour of the wider view. We are five miles wide but one inch deep. The broad sweep is inclusive and takes in all and sundry in its gaze.

Wide deep Scanning

Is it possible to have both gazes in one’s repertoire at the same time? In my view, not easily, and almost impossibly alone. A group or team of people can divide roles to enable both wide and deep, focused gazing into the world. Or an individual may practice switching focus in sequence then taking time to reflect on the information and experience generated. This is not easy as we tend, by personality, to prefer one type of gaze over another. Therefore, wide-deep gazing requires us to break habits, get out of comfort zones, and expand our repertoire.

The Importance of Balance

Another important theme is that of “balance”. Both gazes will be appropriate at different times, but they do tend to take over, become habitual and, therefore unbalance individuals and organisations.

For example, an individual who becomes obsessed with their physical looks and who loses the ability, or desire, to truly and warmly socialise, gaining experience and insight from a potentially wide range of people.

Or the person who has an enormous number of acquaintances but has no close friends. Or the person who reads a huge umber of trashy novels but can’t sit down and read one classic.

Then there is the organisation is focused and obsessed with profits that it loses the ability to radically innovate its products or processes, or loses touch with its customers’ needs.

Or the organisation so focused on scanning its markets, watching its competitors and customers that its administrative system starts to crumble.

In my view we have created a culture in many organisations, which has wrongly polarised these two types of gaze (just as I have done in this paper so far!). Personal development programmes should be designed around creating a competence in individuals.

A competence where individuals can adjust their gaze as necessary in the world. When they need a penetrative gaze, one that seeks out the specific root cause of a problem, then that individual has the competence to exercise that gaze. When there is a need to step back and take a broader view, to view the whole system, then there is competence to do this as well.

In our theatre labs we have often observed that we are conditioned so much to be “cautious” that some actors are so generally cautious and untrusting in life, that they find it hard on stage to get out of “self-preservation” mode. They cannot break free of the gaze on the tip of the nose.

I very much agree. Someone I know is in the acclaimed production of the National Theatre’s “Seagull” by Chekhov. (Lyttleton Theatre, London). Apparently the cast are also in character off stage before entering and after exiting the stage. In one scene one of the characters enters with a suitcase. Before she enters, offstage, she is in character, packing the suitcase meticulously!

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