Theatre And Focusing: A Double Process
By Michael Seibel, Greece
I have always considered Greece the birthplace of western theatre, and Athens seemed like the right place to research the universal theatrical language and perhaps to discover the secrets behind the artistic creative process. So I should not have been surprised that it was here in Athens, this ancient center of artistic creativity, that I learned about Focusing. In cooperation with Pavlos Zarogiannis and Anna Karali from the Hellenic Focusing Center, I developed a use for Focusing that works well for actors and others in the theatrical field, and even with the audience itself. The purpose of this article is to introduce this way of using Focusing.
After learning Focusing and applying it in my everyday theatrical work, I discovered that the Focusing process actually parallels the creative process. I gradually realized that the creation of a work of art is based on steps that are nearly identical to the Focusing steps. For example, a poet looking for the right word or a painter looking for the right color needs to tune in to his felt sense in order to make the right selection. Most of the time, artists are not conscious of moving through Focusing steps. They only know what they need and they recognize the feeling of harmony when they get it right.
When an artist creates a work by using a Focusing-oriented approach, his own body is a source of inspiration. Because Focusing is intentional and not merely unconscious, he also comes to a better understanding of his own creative process. Although my approach was developed for theatre directors, actors, and other theatrical artists, it can be adapted to any other artistic field.
In investigating the use of Focusing for liberating my own creative process, I needed to translate the language of Focusing into theatrical terms. The terms I use are cited below in quotes.
The Focusing issue corresponds to the drama itself or the characters in it.
The breathing area is the “inner stage.”
Clearing the space corresponds to an inner “refining process.”
The felt sense is “artistic inspiration.”
The symbolization process is an “internal improvisation.”
The symbol is expressed on the “external stage” through the “scenic representation.”
When I read a play, I see it in my mind’s eye, hear the dialogue in my ear, and come to meet the characters for the first time. The characters talk me into their world, allowing me to enter their being. Their speech is explicit but much of what is communicated to me is implicit. I am now in contact with the drama and the characters who are acting in it.
Breathing Area – “The Inner Stage”
In order to pass from the external, explicit speech of the characters to their internal implicit speech, I let myself enter a process that has similar steps to Focusing. Breathing into the implicit experience of the characters or the play itself gives me a very experiential, embodied relationship with the characters and, by extension, with the theatrical piece. I call this my inner stage.
Clearing the space – “Inner Refining”
To experience what is happening on this inner stage, I must put aside all the obstacles that prevent me from paying attention. I try to free myself from wishes, expectations, values, emotions, and prejudices. I call this an inner refining process. By clearing a space, the theatrical drama can be given the room it needs to truly open up in front of me. I gradually find the right distance to carefully observe what is happening on my inner stage. I listen and look with patience and precision until I can see the drama unfolding its truth to me. Then I respectfully enter the world of the characters, offering them, each in turn, space on my inner stage. In this manner, I can see the world through their eyes. I can feel the way they feel without identifying myself with them or losing my own identity. I understand them the way they are without criticizing them or changing them.
Felt Sense – “Inspiration”
Now I can finally begin the creative phase. As I focus on that inner stage, inspiration will appear in the form of a felt sense. The felt sense then functions as a compass for the inspiration.
Symbolization – “Internal Improvisation”
With the assistance of a bit of internal improvisation, the compass guides me to express the felt sense in an artistic way, this time on the external stage. The symbolization usually happens with all the theatrical means available to me – movement, voice, lighting, music, etc.
Symbol – “Scenic Representation”
The symbol is the creative “answer” to all of the above steps. By actively trying to find the right scenic representation, the right form, the right shape or the right expression for the felt sense in my body, I bring forth artistry.
Interaction –“ Perception and Insight”
The goal of this experiential approach, which is based on the felt sense of the artist as the source of inspiration, is to evoke a felt sense in the audience. The felt sense in the audience also functions as a source of inspiration helping them to understand the drama, themselves and their world.
Since 1999, I have applied this Focusing approach to a number of theatrical performances including Helmut Krauser’s Leatherface, the classic Oresteia by Aeschylus, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Love Letters of A Portuguese Nun. This latter work is a theatrical monologue based on five love letters written in the 17th century by an anonymous Portuguese nun to a French military officer who abandoned her. Here are some of the ways I used Focusing in Love Letters.
The Greek actress who played the nun knew nothing about Focusing, nor did any of the actors I have worked with. Pavlos Zarogiannis and I gave her a brief overview of Focusing. Then she and I read the play together using a person-centered approach. In other words, we maintained a Focusing attitude, reading the play in an empathetic way without any interpretations or prejudices.
This reading gave us an initial understanding of the play, the character and the personal issues that beset the character. I decided to zero in on four areas and address them with Focusing:
- the whole play,
- the character of the nun,
- the tone of each letter and,
- the specific emotions of the character, such as pain, jealousy, loneliness, anger, love, abandonment and survival.
Pavlos guided the actress though the Focusing process in each of these four areas. Pavlos would invite her to bring onto her “inner stage” whatever she recalled about the play itself or the character of the nun and then he would wait for the actress to form a felt sense. Or, he would guide her attention to the special qualities of each letter and, again, wait for a felt sense to be formed around that. As the theatre director, I did not interfere with this process at all, nor did I give her any other special preparation.
We would meet at the theatre and, at that time, I would tell her and Pavlos which of the four areas we would be focusing on. Pavlos worked with the actress on stage, and I sat on the theatre floor. Pavlos guided her through the Focusing process using the terminology I outlined above (inner stage, internal improvisation, etc.). As the actress focused, I kept notes of the words, body movement, gestures, expressions and phrasing that she used to express the felt sense of the dramatic material. We used approximately twelve Focusing sessions to cover all the issues, and it was a very successful way for the actress to get prepared for her role.
Meanwhile, as I was observing her Focusing, I had access to new felt senses of my own. These added to the many others that I had already experienced throughout preparation and rehearsals. I find that working this way gives me access to a holistic, non-verbal inner aura that resonates in my body leaving its traces behind every thought and every comment that I make as a director. Using Focusing, I have a way in to my felt sense which serves as an inner compass that directs my every move in my work.