Acting Lessons from a Distracted Audience

By Rhonda Musak, acting coach

As my cousin and I were getting ready recently to see a Broadway show, I was musing about my next topic for this blog. Being very familiar with the Book That Job Blog (she is after all Art & Soul Acting's fabulous editor-in-chief), she suggested that I review the show we were about to see.

I told her I would happily leave the reviewing to the critics. Had I, though, chosen to write a review, what happened on stage at that night's performance was hardly the main event—what really got my attention was what was happening right in the audience.

Oh dear, how could the audience not get my attention? It was a free-for-all. At one point I had wondered if I had slipped through a time portal and landed in the audience of an Elizabethan theatre. Chitchat was rampant and water bottles crinkled as did a flurry of candy wrappers. Luckily, the bright lights of some audience members' cell phones reminded me that it was indeed 2014.

Less than a week later, I attended a concert of an African musician. It was held not at a cavernous concert venue, but at a well-known theatre that hosts an extensive fare of international artists. The audience's over-the-top preoccupation with their cell phones had me very much preoccupied.

Two rows ahead of me, a woman obsessively checked her dimmed phone roughly every four minutes in the darkened theatre. The rake of the seats made it easy for me to see what exactly was more compelling to her than the 13 joyous souls performing live on stage: text messages; her email inbox, which she kept cleaning out; and Facebook.

Seated adjacent to me was a large group. Arriving an hour late and with smart phones at the ready, they seemed to have the most fun when they were actually using their phones: taking pictures of the stage and each other (flash on), videoing particular songs (no doubt a visual as well as audio smear), sending text messages (of course), and even taking phone calls (really???).

Curiously, when they were not engaged with their phones, they seemed to be at a loss as to what they should be doing. It was almost as if they were...waiting. This odd behavior stuck with me after the performance as I kept trying to understand it. It finally occurred to me that in those particular moments they were scanning the event—and not to enter into this once-in-a-lifetime moment in order to be a part of it—they were scanning it for the next moment they would photograph or record. As proof, perhaps, of the incredible time they were having?

I know I'm writing for actors, and as an actor I'm sure that your behavior as an audience member is, at the very least, close to impeccable. I am certainly preaching to the choir. But the point I wish to make is that one of our greatest resources as actors come from when we choose to deeply invest in the great flowing presence of the moment.

Unlike almost anything else we do these days, acting demands absolute focus on what is happening in the here and now. Nothing acting-wise has ever happened in the past. Though you may rehearse and explore your role, it is only in preparation of a performance that doesn't happen until the moment it is actually happening. Even film or video, though shot in the past, was still radically present at the moment it was being shot.

Can you imagine being in the middle of a scene with another actor and your partner just "dropping out" to check social media? This is what now happens endless times each day. As a culture we seem to be training ourselves to not be fully focused and I'm concerned about the negative impact that this will have on actors and the art of acting.

In full disclosure, I am not immune to the kind of fractured focus-state that I'm talking about: I'm on Facebook and with over 12k tweets, I kind of love Twitter. But my recent audience experiences seem to be proof that we pay a high cost when we tune out of the present moment.

Instead – and to honor the fact that our actor-self flourishes through presence – might we begin to create some times of deep focus? Time in which our phone is shut off and we're allowed to do whatever it is we're doing without interruption? Without feeling like we're missing out?

A deeply focused coffee with a friend, being in the flow while researching a role, mindfully updating a website without disturbance—if we were to choose to switch our phones off a little more often, perhaps the deeper gifts of those moments will show up on stage or in front of a camera.


#1 Robert 2014-09-25 15:42
Darling, have to commend you on your beautifully articulated observaton of such a really ugly progression into the new addiction: Somewhere Out There. I was just observing a woman on the bus with an adroable four year old how much her conversation with the child was somewhat automatic as she focused on her cellphone held between her's and the child's sightline. I couldn't help but notice how precsious that child's eyes were, looking up witn the intensity of connecting, communicating, wanting response. I felt a pang of grief for the lost moment, one that I expereicned somehow instead by proxy, of this dazzling young soul reaching out to be heard and realted with. All missed for a sentence or two of text. A living spark of life swept away by the flick of a thumb. Who knew our thumbs whizzing through virtual space would come to compete with the here and now at the tips of our fingers.
#2 Rhonda Musak 2014-09-26 15:17
Robert –
Thank you so much for your beautifully eloquent reply! Wow.

And indeed, I'm sorry that you came up with the perfect story to include in this sadly distracted mix. Thinking about this piece and your post has really helped me to be more conscious in terms of the use of my smart phone. What a tragedy it would be to get to the end of our lives and our memory is of our hand holding our cell phone.

Thank you again for your thoughtful reply.

#3 Gresham 2014-10-08 21:45
Unfortunately, cell phones and headphones are now disconnecting all of us to each other and our surroundings. In my neighborhood, I say hello to all of my neighbors; it's part of the fabric of our community. Last night I passed 4 out 6 neighbors with headphones and 2 people said hello - do the math! I think we are all understand the danger of technology and it is pervading our lives. I thought the article about Steve Jobs relevant to your piece -

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