art of concentration-stageyactor

The Art of Concentration


The Art of Concentration means giving your full attention to what you are doing. Concentrating on the other actor lets you experience the moment without thinking about your emotions. This is the creative source of acting. Your audience enjoys and believes you only to the extent that you are emotionally connected to the other actor. When you feel an emotion, you are interesting, but when you pretend or act an emotion, you lose credibility.To concentrate, fix your attention on the other actor. The extent of your concentration sets the limit of how good you will be. When you can’t—or won’t—concentrate fully, your performance will be boring. When you do concentrate with your whole being, your performance will be interesting. Learn to concentrate with your whole being. Whatever you do—javelin throwing, painting, race car driving, acting—concentration puts your attention where it has to be for you to achieve excellence. It gives you access to your intuitive knowledge and energy, which results in spontaneous and creative performances. All the intellectual and logical garbage sloshing around inside your head is the stuff of poor performance, but you can control it through concentration.


Internal rap is that constant conversation you carry on with your-self inside your head. It goes on all the time, except when you concentrate directly on a point of focus. It sounds like—“That red Porsche is sensational. I sure wish I had it.” “What would you do with it?” “I’d put the top down and get that guy in the beer commercial and drive to Malibu.” “Look at that sexy woman.” “Well, suck in your stomach.” “You should put more feeling in your lines.” “What a cute guy.” “My hair’s a mess.” “Knock ’em dead on your next speech, you can’t miss.” “I wonder how I’m coming across?” “When we do that scene again, I’m really gonna blow him out of the water.” “Wow! I’m sure a good actor.” “Wow! I’m sure a rotten actor.” The rap goes on and on, and most of the time you’re not aware you’re doing it. Internal rap is the enemy of the Art of Concentration.Call internal rap whatever you want—daydreaming, reminiscing, mental planning, thinking, solving problems—it stops yakking when you concentrate on the other actor. Internal rap is like one of those trick birthday candles that re-lights itself when you blow it out. The instant you allow the tiniest crack in your concentration, your internal rap jumps back in. That’s when the prize fighter goes down for the count; that’s when the runner knocks down the hurdle, the swimmer flubs her turn on the last lap, the race car driver crashes and burns; and that’s when the actor looks fake. Champions—artists, writers, race car drivers,musicians, athletes, actors—all became champions by learning to concentrate so intensely that their internal rap didn’t stand a chance. When you halt the internal rap, your concentration becomes directed, and you are free to get on with giving a great performance. This is the Art of Concentration in film acting.


The greater your interest in the other actor, the greater yourawareness and the more directed your concentration. As your internal rapdiminishes, the more truthful and intuitive you become.It is possible, and we have all done it, to carry on a face-to-face conversa-tion with a person to whom you are oblivious because you have not concen-trated all your attention on him or her. This non-interest lets your internal rapbabble on, and that’s one reason we instantly forget people’s names after beingintroduced. From now on, as a part of your actor’s discipline, use your concen-tration to remember the name of every person introduced to you. When yourinterest is enhanced, the more aware you become of another person’s hair, eyes,teeth, lips, complexion, clothing, attitude, emotions, body language, and name.You become sensitive to tone of voice, facial expressions, and physical being.Intense interest carries relating to a deeper level than speech alone; so, if youare to succeed at acting, at some point you have to tell your internal rap to shutthe hell up.When you truly concentrate on the situation and the other actor, you are“in the zone”: your mind and body function intuitively instead of logically, and your performance seems to come from “inspiration.” You are simultaneouslyrelating on two levels—the conscious and the intuitive.


What Richard Brestoff calls “the most precious exchange” withreference to fine acting is a description of the actor’s version of what modernscience refers to as a “feedback loop.” He writes, “When actors have an effecton each other; when one action causes a reaction in the other, which causes areaction in the first character, then the most precious exchange in the theateris taking place.”Your dialogue stimulates the other actor’s responses—emotions, appear-ance, and actions—which are then fed back to you on the separate paths of see-ing, listening, and touching. Then your responses are fed back to the other actor,and so on. With actors who concentrate, these responses affect each actor’s sub-sequent responses throughout the scene. Remember what James Caan saidabout Marlon Brando: “From moment to moment you never knew. But italways made sense.” That is, it always made sense to the actor who concen-trated on Brando.


Concentration of attention on the other person’s emotions is the creative source of film acting. Through the Art of Concentration you experience the other actor’s emotions with clarity. Human beings are always in some state of emotional experience, and your job is to deal with that experience:

1. Recognize the emotion that the other actor is experiencing—sadness, happiness, anger, love, fear.

2. Respond appropriately to that emotion.

3. On a subconscious level, don’t let your logic or internal rap interfere with feedback from the other actor and the situation.

When actors concentrate on the feedback from each other’s actions and emotions, the performances of both actors immediately improve. Actors become more in-the-moment and honest. It’s simple, as Sandy Meisner says, it just takes years to get it.


Although everyone is always experiencing one of the five emotions—happiness, sadness, anger, fear, love—each emotion can have variations. Love can be caring; it can be motherly love; it can be friendliness, sexual attraction, flirting, lust, or passion. Each is a manifestation of the emotion love. The five primary emotions are the source of all your experiences, and it is possible to experience one or more emotions at a time. Recognizing another person’s emotions can be difficult, but to be a good film actor, you have to develop the art of seeing and identifying emotions. You cannot know what another person is thinking, but you can be aware of what he is experiencing. If he is crying, you don’t know the reason for the tears, but you can see that he’s crying.

NOTE: Acting isn’t an exercise in psychic revelation, and it isn’t a guessing game. If an actor is crying, you don’t know what he’s crying about unless he tells you why. You’re guessing. What’s important is that you see what he’s feeling. I’m not concerned with what you think he should feel.

Learn to see and recognize which emotion is going on, and then respond to it. It is easy to recognize extreme emotions, like violent rage or roaring laughter. But it is more difficult to recognize and identify the subtle ones. An actor may be experiencing a strong emotion, yet outwardly showing only subtle signs. Don’t be trapped into thinking she is not feeling anything, because there is always some sign: the eyes, the expression, the tremor or stillness in hands or muscles, physical position, the color and tone of the skin, even your in tuition. There is always a clue to what a person is feeling, so concentrate and find it. To become a great actor, develop the skill of recognizing emotions to the point where you can recognize the emotions of a marble statue.One emotion can successively give way to another and back again rapidly to the first emotion or to yet another emotion. Being a good film actor means seeing, identifying, and responding to these changes. When talented actors put their attention on their partners and are open to experience, then fasten your seat belts.


Love, fear, and anger are each capable of stimulating a release of adrenaline into your body. When you think of or see your lover, adrenaline flows. Your heart rate goes up, you get excited, your hormones start pumping, and you become aroused. When you make an illegal U-turn and a flashing red light confronts you in the rear view mirror, your body gets a shot of adrenaline. Your heart rate goes up, you experience fear, and you want to flee. When the cop takes out his ticket book, you get angry. Such anger is usually directed inward—”Damn, why did I hang that U?” But it can also be directed outward, which is why police officers sometimes get shot writing traffic tickets. A police car chase starts with a red light in the rear view. Adrenaline pumps, the driver’s instinct for fight-or-flight takes over, and away he goes. Adrenaline also fires up the batter’s fight-or-flight instinct, and with murderous intent he goes after the pitcher who has just dusted his ear with a 98-mile-an-hour fastball.

Love, fear, and anger, which we classify as separate emotions, each puts us through the same adrenaline-induced physiological responses. Since we live in a civilized society, we have been taught from childhood not to act on our impulses. How you react depends on your personal situation and the circumstances. Good actors cultivate their intuition so they can act on impulses. This gives them great emotional resources in their film acting.


Love is affection towards another person; warm feelings, caring.This feeling can range from kindness to intense sexual desire.


Anger is hostility towards any person or object, or towards one-self. This hostility can range from simple frustration to blind rage.


Fear is the fight-or-flight emotion that arises in the presence or anticipation of danger. It can render you unable to respond or it can put you into panic. Fear exists at a primitive level to protect you, and it can sometimes override the logical part of your mind. In acting, you experience fear in two ways: personal fear and character fear.

1. Personal fear

This is your own fear as a person, and you do not want it to be visible to the audience. Unlike the other emotions, which work on any level, personal fear can in hibit you. Personal fear comes from your concentration on yourself instead of on something outside of you, and it blocks you from feeling other emotions. If the other actor is personally afraid, help alleviate his fear so he can respond emotionally to you. Support him emotionally. Extend yourself with a hug. Hold his hand, stroke him, or talk to him softly. His focus will change. He will become more aware of you and less selfconscious. He will start to relate to you, and his performance will improve. When you embrace him emotionally, he will experience a level of shared feelings (intimacy) that allows the scene to work. When you are personally afraid, no matter how you act, the camera will unerringly pick it up, and on the screen you will look like nothing more than a scared actor. To get rid of personal fear concentrate on the other actor and turn it into workable energy.

2. Character fear

This is the fear your character experiences. To do this on film, you have to be truly afraid. If you try to fake it, the camera sees you as an actor trying to look frightened. Accept the circumstances.


Laughter and sadness both relieve emotional tension. Laughter relieves tension by explosion; sadness by surrender, letting go. The end result of both is to relieve tension, unlike the other emotions, which stimulate. Laughter, which is an expression of being happy, is a fully extended emotion, ranging from a simple smile to uncontrolled laughing. In a scene where you have a slight smile but are not really laughing, “happy” is a more appropriate description. Of all the feelings, laughter is unique. It is a shared, contagious emotion. Sometimes people laugh to avoid experiencing some other primary emotion. A man stumbles on the edge of a carpet and laughs. A newscaster bobbles a word and laughs. A girl giggles when she is called on to recite before the class. An actor chuckles when he looks into the eyes of his serious partner. All are using laughter to turn aside embarrassment or an uncomfortable emotion.

Sadness is the emotion of sorrow, unhappiness, or pain, usually followed by tears. It can range from slight disappointment to uncontrollable crying, which is difficult to do when you want to do it. Some actors have more access to their tears than others. Sometimes chemicals are used to induce tears, or glycerin to make tear drops. These tactics work at times, but nothing can substitute for the real experience. The emotions you experience can and will vary in intensity, energy, and spontaneity depending on your personality. Some actors have logical control over most of their emotions, but great actors don’t have any constraints.


Concentration of attention on the other actor’s emotions—happiness, sadness, anger, fear, love—is the creative source of film acting. Placing your concentration on the other actor’s emotions gives you a specific point of focus. David Mamet said that the actor who thrills the viewers is the one who “behaves with no regard to his personal state, but with all regard for the responses of his antagonists.” When you disregard concentration, you lose your connection with the other actor. You then stop relating and become mediocre, or worse.



See and respond to the other actor’s emotional changes. If your partner changes emotionally, react with an equal or greater level of energy to her change. This doesn’t mean that you should go through a lot of gyrations or facial expressions. If you have an emotional experience, you don’t have to do anything, because that experience will come through to the other actor, and, more importantly, to your audience. As you get better at seeing with a child’ seyes, you will respond more and more intuitively. One of my favorite moments is in the film Legends of the Fall with Brad Pitt. Pitt’s character, returning after the first World War, rides up the hill to ward the ranch. The ranch hand sees him in the distance and calls to the colonel, played by Anthony Hopkins; Julia Ormond and Aidan Quinn, who plays Pitt’s brother, each experience an emotion that we see and understand. They do this without words, facial gymnastics, or silly indications. They actually experience the emotions, and we see them.

(Close-up. The Indian ranch hand hears the horses. He turnsand looks over the hill. The other ranch hand sees theIndian and also turns.)

                       RANCH HAND

(He points out the distant figure on horseback, and they look with anticipation as Pitt approaches the ranch house.)


(She watches Pitt through the screen door. We see the internal experience she is having, and we know that she is in love with Pitt. Quinn comes down the steps, unaware that his brother has returned.)

             I’m going to town . . . it’s a. . .

(He stops in mid sentence when he sees Ormond staring out the window. He sees what she is feeling and realizes she is in love with his brother.)

(Quinn feels disappointment, and we see it. When Ormond becomes aware of his presence, she turns and looks at him.She is ashamed of her feelings, lowers her head, and runs up the stairway. Quinn looks out the screen door toward his brother.)

This scene is a perfect example of truly seeing. Each actor intently sees what is going on with the other, and, without words, each has an emotional experience that is clearly communicated to the audience.


Sharpening your listening sense almost instantly increases your effectiveness as an actor. Listen, really listen, to everything the other actor says. Force yourself to listen. Hear the tone of his voice. Is he louder or softer than I am? Am I responding to his emotional tone? Listen as a young child listens. In As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson plays an obsessive-compulsive man.He is sitting alone in a restaurant and takes out his plastic eating utensils.Helen Hunt, who plays a waitress in the restaurant, interacts with Nicholson.When you view this scene, watch how the talented Nicholson is absorbed in listening to Hunt’s tone and inflection.

               Are you afraid you’ll die if
               you eat with our silverware?
We’re all going to die. I’m going to die, you’re going to die, and it sure sounds like your son is going to die.

(Hunt stares at Nicholson. Silence. Nicholson looks up,realizing he has made a mistake.)

                If you ever mention my son 
         again you will never be able to eat here.

(Watch Nicholson’s reaction as he listens to her. He is frightened. He can’t talk. But he listens.)
                   Do you understand?

(Nicholson listens to her so intently that he is transfixed.We have no doubt that he really and truly hears her every word and sees her emotion.)

            Do you understand me you crazy. . . ?

(Nicholson is speechless. He listens so intently, it is astruggle for him to speak.)
                         Do you?
                      Hun . . . Yes
             Okay . . . I’ll get your eggs.


Touch relaxes you and invokes intimacy. Touch heightens your awareness of the other actor and allows you to believe what she is saying or doing. Often, in class, two actors doing a scene will be a little stiff or un-relating. Then one of them touches the other on the arm, and you can see them both instantly relax and become intimate. Almost always, a scene goes better if in some way you touch the other actor or she touches you. Touching focuses your concentration and releases your inhibitions. The actual root meaning of “acting” means “to do,” “to carry out an action.” Physical movement, which includes touching, can evoke an emotional response.

At the climax of As Good As It Gets, Nicholson kisses Hunt. It is an unemotional kiss and not very exciting. Nicholson takes a moment, then—

               I can do better than that.


Copying Mimicking another actor by exactly duplicating his emotional and physical responses as he experiences them keeps you focused on him. It stimulates you. Copying like this is extremely effective when you are first learning the Relating Exercise because it forces you to concentrate and relate. In Duck Soup, Groucho Marx does a vaudeville act with his brother, Harpo. Both of them are dressed identically and stand facing each other; between them stands an empty frame representing a mirror. As Groucho moves, Harpo exactly mimics his movements to make it appear as if he is a mirror reflection. It is a brilliant piece of comedy. They copy each other’s movements perfectly until the payoff when Groucho drops his hat.

Mimicking makes you a participant, not an observer. It forces you to engage the other actor, physically and emotionally. Trying to mimic exactly another actor’s every movement and expression makes you concentrate on that actor to the total exclusion of everything else. In every scene you do, concentrate to that extent when you see, listen, and touch.


Concentration of attention on the other person’s emotions—sadness, happiness, anger, fear, love—is the creative source of film acting. Learn to differentiate between these emotions through the Art of Concentration.

About Jeremiah Comey

Jeremiah Comey is a Hollywood-based acting teacher and a trainer of acting teachers. He has conducted classes and workshops all over the world and in such universities as UCLA. He has acted for both stage and television.

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