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  • Sonya Cooke

The Issue of Focus in the Social Distancing Era

Acting teachers may disagree about methodology, but they all concur about one thing without question: the quality of acting students’ focus has been at an all-time low ever since the era of smartphones.

I am lucky to recall the pre-iPhone era. When I was in college, smartphones were not a thing. At the time, the technology that our professors complained about as “ruining the kids” were iPods. My generation would have our earbuds in, listening to Elliott Smith or Bjork or whatever the obsession was at the time. But, when class started, we turned our phones off, and that was that. Wifi hadn’t been invented; you couldn’t check your email until you got home. And forget texting, that didn’t exist. Instead, people called each other. Ah, the good old days.

Flash forward nearly 20 years and the acting classroom is almost unrecognizable. Walk in, and you see tops of heads. Everyone is bowed over their phones, slumped in their chairs, and very little interaction. Then as we attempt to start classes, students seem like they are waking from a 100-year slumber. It takes concerted effort to generate a real presence in the room. And then they excuse themselves “to use the bathroom,” meanwhile you see the outline of their phone in their pockets. 10 minutes later, they return… The work of acting teachers has gotten a lot harder.

I have a rule in my classroom: if I see your phone out during class (which is strictly forbidden) I will likely call you out, cast some angry vibes your way, and dock your participation grade. It’s amazing to me how students will still break this rule, unable to unplug for 80 minutes.

And that is why I am concerned about how the social distancing era will impact the already corroding focus amongst acting students.

When I am not teaching or practicing my craft, I admit that my focus is similarly shoddy. A lack of focus seems to contribute to an increasing and comforting feeling of control. I can control my surroundings when I don’t give any one thing too much power, particularly in this sanitation obsessed world we currently live in while pandemic rages outside our doors. If I am focused, then I am vulnerable to whatever holds my attention… I may be affected or infected by the draw of their energy. Focusing gives me FOMO; I may miss the latest newsflash if I unhook. Also, focusing on one thing costs me too much. I can’t afford to only do one thing at a time; I have doorknobs to disinfect.

Relating this to acting classes, where I formerly was able to use social shaming to reduce the instances of distraction amongst my students, I now have very little ability to hone my classroom in. While in an online acting class, I cannot tell if someone is checking their Instagram or clicking over to their inboxes. Therefore, I cannot hold that attention as easily as I had previously. I don’t take it personally either. Fear of social shaming, not my instruction, is what kept students’ phones on silent. If I were them, I, too, would likely want to recede into the comfort of my banal text threads.

The technology for online classes is excellent. I can run an acting class very much like how I would teach it in person. The X-factor is something that only the student can provide: focus.

Focus is not an easy thing to reproduce when learning in one’s home. Many folks have little kids running around the house due to school closures. Spouses, roommates, family members are working remote, or stress baking in the kitchen from getting laid off. And then there is the actual physical space. Not everyone has a room of their own to work in. How can you focus on your acting when the boyfriend you live with is doing P90X 6 feet away?

In an era where we are not able to connect live and in-person, and yet when given the technology to recreate personal connection, the last, most imposing obstacle is our own fearful, poor focus. What can we do, as teachers and as students of acting, to confront and overcome this?

As a teacher, I can ritualize the turning off of phones during our online sessions. Everyone can hold their phone up and slide it to “off.” I ask them to commit to not turning it back on, even if they take a bathroom break. I follow that up by a request that they close any and all extra browsers or apps on their devices, so as to reduce the temptation to click over to some distraction. I also require students give feedback in the chat feed throughout class. Even if they are not working at the moment, they can contribute to the dialogue by making observations of the work. Regular stretching or presence exercises are another way to recalibrate the quality of focus in the “room.” I can reformat my classes to involve a lot of group exercises, so as to engage everyone into the learning at the same time. And lastly, I can close class by acknowledging their great attention to each other’s process.

As a student or participant in an online learning format, I follow all the directions above. And yet there is more to do. I can breathe and reconnect with the present moment. All those notifications and unending updates do nothing but knock me off my center. So, I breathe in and out so as to establish my simple presence. I can sit myself up as close as I comfortably can get to the screen in order to feel and experience as much of my colleagues as possible. When I feel the urge to disengage, I question the impulse. What does pulling away serve? It only protects me from going deeper into my work, and that’s not a purpose I wish pursue.

Perhaps this social distancing time that we live in is offering us as actors, artists, and students a unique opportunity to realize how special and vital our in-person life connections are. Without them, we can recede into ourselves out of a compulsion to self-protect and control our environments. This pandemic has revealed many things, one of which is our interdependence. And it is not drawing within that will sustain us, although it is crucial to keep our distance at this time. Rather, it is our dynamically sharing ourselves despite our current obstacles that is going to help us see this crisis through. Perhaps this period offers us the opportunity to strengthen the powers of our attention and focus. We will be better groomed to work and act with greater self and social awareness. And, on that beautiful day when we can re-enter a classroom, I hope we will have a newfound appreciation for each other and the privilege of sharing our craft.

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