The Observation Exercise

In my classes at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, I'm usually teaching first-year film and animation students a required course in acting. What this generally means is that they don't want to be in front of the camera, but in some capacity behind it. They come with the notion that acting is just something that certain types of people do well, and they are not aware that there is any technique or process involved. In my professional workshops, I often encounter people who want to be actors, driven by an inner desire that they have not yet discovered how to unleash, and they, too, are often burdened by the same misconceptions of acting. They experience fear and frustration because they haven't found the information they need to unlock their talents. I have tried to devise ways that will be easily accessible to anyone to help them discover the necessary techniques involved in the process. Since I believe that observation is key to understanding concentration, I start them off with the following simple exercise as their first assignment. It seems to work very well.


This exercise asks you to do what you do for many hours every day, but within a preset amount of time and with keenly focused observation.

We spend many hours of each day walking or driving from one place to another, shopping or eating out somewhere, in an office or classroom, in an infinite number of places where we come in contact with other people. Many of them are strangers. Our thoughts drift from what we ourselves are doing to a streaming internal commentary on everything around us. We do this shift in thought unconsciously. Now, the idea is to do it consciously.

To frame this exercise, I use a quote of Konstantin Stanislavsky's c from the book Stanislavsky on the Art of the Stage, translated by g David Magarshack. This is my favorite of the books by and about | Stanislavsky, and I have a dog-eared copy that I have carried around s with me for twenty years. Stanislavsky is talking about the stage, but U

for the purpose of many aspects of acting, the inner workings of the actor are the same. Particularly for young actors, the film set will be their stage, and the rectangular of the frame is like that of the stage. It's still humans moving within a space; the outward space is different, but the inner space is the same.

Here's the quote:

One must never think of the theatre as a place for some special sect of dedicated people. One must never look upon it as a place which is divorced from life. All the roads of creative human endeavor lead to a manifestation of life as "all roads lead to Rome." And the Rome of every man is one and the same; every man carries his entire creative genius within him, and he pours everything out of himself into the broad stream of life.

To focus one's concentration on the concept that "every man carries his entire creative genius within him, and he pours everything out of himself into the broad stream of life" is very important while doing this exercise. If we can suppose that everyone is worth observing, that through observing the world around us, we may find the way to observing ourselves, then the path to concentration becomes accessible and right in front of us, so to speak.

1 Choose a public place where you can sit undisturbed for a long period of time—a café, coffee shop, bar, park, etc., anywhere there are likely to be many people. It's best to choose a place where you are not likely to run into people whom you know, only because this is an exercise that you must do alone, without familiar company.

2 Bring a notebook for writing with you, which we'll call your Journal. The Journal becomes an important tool in this and in many other exercises, because it is easy to forget or reshape after the fact ideas, impressions, and feelings that happen spontaneously. It's best to write things down uncensored as they w happen, and then read and think about them later. ee

™ 3 Once you've settled down in your chosen place, set your watch for

< one hour. Time is such a strange thing, and our judgment of it

5 depends on how we feel about what we're doing. Hours can fly by unnoticed, and minutes can seem like hours, so check the clock and stay with it for one hour.

4 Observe the people around you, and write your observations in your Journal. Watch, observe, muse, and write. This is not continuous writing. Most of the time is spent observing.

5 While you are observing others, observe yourself and how you honestly feel at the moment. Start to write down these self-observations in your Journal as well. Be honest, stay in the moment. Try not to censor yourself.

6 Start by writing about what you see around you, or, if you are unable to do that, then write about how you feel about doing the exercise, then move it to the observations. Write about the people— who you think they are, where they come from, what they're doing, etc., or whatever aspects about them interest you. While you are doing this, try to see the creative genius in each person. Don't forget to include yourself.

note about the exercise: You never know how you are going to react to a given situation in a given moment. Try to stay away from prejudgments and old ways of seeing things. Reread the Stanislavsky quote, and try to incorporate its message into your process. Encounter your preconception head on, and include your process of discovery about yourself and your surroundings in your Journal.

Remember! This is not a writing exercise, it's an observation exercise! It's an exercise of forcing yourself to concentrate on simple truths for one hour. The idea is to write what you are actually thinking. This is much more difficult than you might imagine. Grammar and spelling are not important; neither is complete sentence structure. The only thing that matters is that you write what's on your mind in the moment-to-moment reality.

7 When your hour is up, close your Journal and go about your life.

Don't read what you've written just yet. Wait. -S

After at least a few hours, pick up your Journal and read it. You should s try and be in some surrounding that will enable you to concentrate on ^ your words and read them aloud without causing a problem. Try some £

of the Mental Relaxation exercises before you begin to read the Journal so you'll be in touch with yourself a little more.

As you read, ask yourself some of the following questions:

• Was I honest, and if I was, how do I feel about it now?

• When I started to feel something, what did I do? Did I investigate the feeling further, or did I quickly move on to something else?

• If someone seemed to notice what I was doing, how did I react?

• Did I go as far as I could have with my observations of my surroundings?

• Was I able to concentrate on the task at hand, or did I "drift" and then find myself lost in my thoughts?

• If and when I did this, did I admit it in writing, or was this self-observation omitted?

• Did I leave myself and my innermost feelings and observations totally out of this exercise? Why did I do that?

• Do I judge people so harshly that I tend to stereotype them, and if that's true, how would I portray them as an actor?

The answers to the above questions are not important. There is no right or wrong answer; there is only the development of a better question and the strengthening of your ability to ask. The process of developing observation and concentration is like working a muscle; it gets stronger with use. You have set parameters around your concentration by doing this exercise. Within these parameters, you can gauge your own performance and development. Each time you do an exercise, you can go a little bit further into the relaxation and concentration process.


Now, look at your experience of the exercise. Did you suffer from self-en consciousness? Could you see yourself trying to take that sense of otf self-consciousness and change it to self-discovery, which would lead you £ to deepening your observation and thereby your concentration? < The Observation exercise is useful to acting, because it places you in u a public place doing an activity. Film actors never work separated by the stage from their audience. Film actors are always surrounded by people. On a low-budget film, it may only be a few people, but on a big-budget film, it could be hundreds. Therefore, the concentration must be developed publicly. They are watching you, but not for their own enjoyment. They, too, are working, and their concentration is totally pinned on you while the camera is rolling. The actors' close proximity to those around them requires a sense of a circle of concentration that is focused and strong, yet relaxed and easy. To sit in a public place while you know you have an agenda enables you to slowly start to become aware of what stops you from simply observing yourself and your surroundings. Also, the act of self-discovery, so exciting to see on the screen, begins to emerge in this simple exercise.

Can you observe when your ability to concentrate wavers and what impedes it? Are you willing to whittle away at the things that stand in your way? I always say it's like being a sculptor. When Michelangelo ordered the marble for the Pieta and it arrived, did he say, "Oh no, that's too huge a mass of rock. I'll never be able to do anything with that!" Well, maybe he did in his mind, but in his studio, he took out his hammer and chisel and began work. He chipped away little piece by little piece, until he was able to liberate the forms from within the solid mass. Actors are like that huge, rough rock of marble, and our hammer and chisel is the focus of our concentration. Little chip by little chip, we liberate the raw stuff of expression within ourselves, which later becomes the characters we play. The communication of this inner expression is realized through concentration, along with the moment-to-moment relaxation process and the use of the senses.

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  • callum hay
    How to write observations on watching people acting?
    9 years ago
  • Robert Unruh
    How to observe people for acting?
    2 years ago
  • Hildifons
    How to observe as an actor?
    4 months ago

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