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Stanislavski – 3 Circles of attention

Updated: Mar 4, 2023

Published in Drama & Theatre Magazine, Spring 2019/20

© Theatre Workout 2020.

Constantine Stanislavski was a Russian theatre director who’s system is the foundation of modern method acting techniques used religiously by actors such as Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep.

Stanislavski rose to fame as he helped actors make their performances more truthful and less showy. If, for example, you’re playing Romeo or Juliet then you need to be genuinely in love with that other character show after show. You have to feel those emotions. However, if the other actor is just the worst type of person off stage and you can’t bare to be with them, how do you see the character and not the actor? This is where some of Stanislavski’s techniques can make a significant difference!

Emotional Memory is ideal in the above scenario as the actor substitute their feelings for the other actor for the genuine emotions of love they have for their partner, family, friends, pets, etc. Many of the techniques in his system, such as this are very psychological, but many more are physical and technical, designed to enable the actor to manipulate the voice and body to heighten and strengthen their performance.

One such technique, which is perfect for anyone who has to speak in front of an audience (such as teachers, conference speakers and salespeople), is his three circles of attention: There are three circles of attention, allowing the actor to expand or reduce their focus, energy, body language and voice to engage with the self, a few others or a much wider audience.

Circle #1: Talking to the self.

The smallest of the three circles, this is most commonly used for screen acting but on stage can also be powerful. Circle One helps the actor explore their characters personal thoughts and feelings. It may work well when a character is having a personal moment of realisation, such as during one of Hamlet’s soliloquies. When using this circle the actors body language may be small, barely present, and their voice and overall energy is inward focused appearing tight and restrictive.

Circle #2: Conversational - You and one or two others

Having a conversation with one other person whereby your energy is focused on that person or those persons, and nothing else. It engages the other person, drawing them into your circle of attention making them feel special and respected. When using this circle the actors body language and voice may be more animated, engaging, with more volume and energy.

Circle #3: The Whole World

This is the most powerful and energy demanding of all Stanislavski’s circles, as you need to engage the whole world in your every thought and spoken word. Actors playing Hamlet will use this circle in many of his long speeches, talking directly to every member of the audience, to God and the Devil! With this circle the energy will be at its maximum with animated body language and speech.

These circles are important because they demonstrate that it is not always what you have to say which engages an audience, it is the way you say it which makes them hang off your every word. By sending your focus out into the space, and seeing your audience as one, you will be more able to engage with them.

In Practice

Once students have explored the three techniques individually, try working through a speech and identify when to change the circles to emphasise a point, explore a thought, convince someone of something, etc. Encourage them to play with it and see how changing the circles affects the meaning or sub-text of the speech. Teachers need to engage their whole audience and probably use the third circle most of the time, but to make a point will perhaps use circle two with individual students or small groups. Over-use of circles one and two can alienate and bore an audience? These are great techniques to use with any student, whether they study drama or not. Employers and Universities want to take people on who at least appear confident, who can talk to people, make eye contact etc. so they're great for confidence boosting public speaking training for interviews or spoken presentations and assessments. Try it out on your next class, lecture or meeting and see how your audience engages with you. You can learn more about Stanislavski and his system online, in his famous book An Actor Prepares, or by booking one of Theatre Workout’s specialist workshops in your school or as part of your next theatre trip.

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