Most acting classes follow a formula similar to this (with some variation, of course): warm-up exercises, sometimes imaginative play or improvisation, a discussion by the teacher of one or another of various principals the teacher would like to focus on for that class, and then an application of the work such as a monologue or scenes performed by the students to which the teacher will make comments and adjustments. This is a tried-and-true method for passing on the actor’s craft.
Often times, the general advice given to acting students includes things like: “don’t be nervous; be confident!” Or: “stay in the moment!” Or: “Your stuck in your head, make the work organic!” And these are all very valid bits of feedback particularly for younger actors who lack practical experience on the stage or in front of a camera.
If you ask a seasoned acting teacher, 90% of them will say that the qualities of relaxation, concentration of attention, and present-moment awareness are of the highest importance, yet almost none of them will have a strategy for training those qualities or abilities directly!
It turns out that there are ways to train the “attention function” (which directly affects nervousness and the ability to “be in the moment” during performance). Yet, strangely, most acting teachers seem to go about this important aspect of training indirectly or address it not at all; perhaps hoping that a better focus of attention will simply happen on its own!
Mindfulness meditation practice can directly affect all three of these areas of highest importance to the actor and do so very reliably. It just takes a little practice (and knowing how to practice is the key.)
Many meditation teachers will explain the human mind like this: our minds are like puppy dogs, they just want to run around in circles sniffing every new smell that they can find. Meditation is like training that dog to sit still…And when your mind is sitting, focused on a single point in the here and now, you are much less likely to become distracted (or chase your own tail!). In other words, you will naturally “be in the moment.” And that can be trained with specific forms of meditation practice.
A well-rounded meditation practice might include: concentration meditation, movement meditation, and mindfulness meditation. For the serious actor, the kinds of benefits that a meditation program can yield are not optional, they are a competitive advantage!
A Meditation Practice Just for Actors
Here is one of the simplest ways to start to train that puppy dog of a brain of yours. It will only take about 15 minutes a day (way less time than you probably spend in the gym!), and it will start to show results in your acting work in less than a week. Try it and see for yourself.
- You will need an egg timer or digital alarm for this exercise, preferably one that is silent and does not make a ticking or vibrating sound (do not use a mobile phone unless you have turned alerts and notifications off; even the vibrating of a cell phone is distracting!).
- Locate a comfortable chair or couch where you can sit undisturbed for at least 15 minutes.
- Do not close your eyes because that can lead to sleep.
- Set the timer for 15 minutes.
- Sit (or lie down) with your back fairly straight and your arms resting by your sides or with your hands in your lap.
- Your eyes should remain open and gently focused on a spot perhaps 4 to 6 feet in front of you (or on the ceiling). This is a “soft focus,” not a hard stare. You simply want to stay awake and alert throughout the exercise, without strain of any kind.
- Settle into your position and allow your attention to turn inward. Take a few deep breaths and then breath normally.
- Breath in and out through your nose, keeping the mouth shut and allowing the tongue to rest comfortably against the back of your front teeth (this will keep you from salivating and needing to swallow often).
- Become aware of the sensation of your breathing.
- Pay careful attention to the sensation of coolness as the air enters the nostrils, the gentle rising of your belly as you fill yourself with life-giving air, and the rising of your chest as the act of inhaling completes. Now follow the physical sensation of the exhale as the chest then the belly deflates, and the breathing cycle completes.
- On the next inhale, while again following each sensation as it arises, silently count in your mind, “one.” Then, as the chest once again begins to fall on the exhale, count “two,” so that you are silently counting each inhale and exhale as it occurs.
- Continue to count each inhale and exhale as you experience the physical sensations of your breathing pattern until you reach the number ten (5 full breathing cycles), and then start again with “one” on your next inhale.
- If at any point during the session you lose track of the count or become distracted by external sensations or wandering thoughts, gently let those thoughts or sensations go, return your attention to the sensation of your breath, and begin your count again with the very next inhale.
- Continue to physically and mentally relax as you sit and silently count your inhales and exhales from one to ten.
- Once again, if your mind wanders or you become distracted, avoid any self-judgement or negative self-talk and simply return to the breath.
- When the timer goes off, your session has ended, and you may allow your attention to expand to take in the room around you.
That’s it. Sounds simple, right? Well, it is. But, it also takes practice.
Do this exercise regularly once a day (and preferably around the same time each day, if possible) for two weeks and see what happens to your concentration during scene work, monologues, or auditions. I promise, you will see noticeable improvement! If you’d like to join the conversation about actors’ attentional training, you can visit the website, www.KevinPage.com and leave a comment.
For an excellent book on basic meditation exercises specifically for actors, check out 150% Better Auditions: Using Mindfulness Practice to Improve Your Acting. For tips on how to train yourself in acting, checkout the blog post: 5 Ways to Teach Yourself Acting Outside of an Acting Class
Kevin Page is an American author, actor, and holds a master’s degree in psychology. He writes about mindfulness meditation and other healthy mind/body training techniques. As an actor he has appeared in over 70 films and TV programs and 100 commercials, voice overs, and stage plays. He has three books coming out in 2018, including 150% Better Auditions, which teaches actors and other performers how to improve their craft through meditation training. www.KevinPage.com
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