Focus in Performance

In our final two years of secondary schooling here in Victoria, Australia, the government-prescribed Drama course has various elements of drama/theatre grouped together as part of the theory that underpins the practical aspects of the course. Here are three sets of groups:

Dramatic Elements

  • focus
  • tension
  • timing
  • rhythm
  • contrast
  • mood
  • space
  • language
  • sound
  • symbol
  • conflict
  • climax

Expressive Skills

  • voice
  • movement
  • facial expression
  • gesture

Performance Skills

  • presence
  • energy

Why is FOCUS one of the “dramatic elements” and not one of the “expressive skills”???

One might argue it’s all semantics and why worry? But, if like me, you’re in the middle of a prescribed curriculum that mandates terminology in the course, questions such as this I believe, are important. It seems to me FOCUS would belong more happily as a fifth expressive skill in our Drama course….you know…focus, voice, movement, facial expression and gesture.

I understand a student actor is not necessarily “expressing” his/her focus in performance, but without focus, the quality of his/her four expressive skills is very poor indeed! On the flip side, strong focus will allow the four expressive skills of voice, movement, facial expressions and gesture to be powerful, believable and convincing in performance.  So why doesn’t focus belong in this category?

Here is my definition of focus I give my students:

Focus is often used interchangeably with the terms concentration and engagement, assisting the performer in the portrayal of believable characters. This also implies memorisation of text (including word, moves and gestures).  Furthermore, focus requires the channeling (focusing) of all the performer’s energies into achieving the given goals or objectives of a character in a scene (otherwise known as ‘wants’).

Now to me, not only does focus appear to lie awkwardly among its other cousins under the “dramatic elements” category of terms, but it also belongs more comfortably in the family of “expressive skills”. The “dramatic elements” are not necessarily linked to the student actor. They are elements of theatre that, when manipulated, create effective drama – such as contrast and mood in performance. But focus, on the other hand, seems to be directly associated with the individual performer, and should therefore be an “expressive skill”, not a “dramatic element”.

I’d be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on this……

UPDATE (15/6/14): Since the start of 2014, changes have been made to the Victorian Certificate of Education VCE Drama curriculum and terminology mentioned in this post. The central argument of this post, stating that ‘focus’ does not sit neatly amongst its other cousins as a dramatic element, is a key part of the recent changes. Focus has now been moved into the category of ‘performance skills’. For other changes, see below:

Dramatic Elements

  • focus (moved to ‘performance skills’)
  • tension
  • timing (moved to ‘performance skills’)
  • rhythm
  • contrast
  • mood
  • space
  • language (removed)
  • sound
  • symbol
  • conflict
  • climax

Expressive Skills (remain unchanged)

  • voice
  • movement
  • facial expression
  • gesture

Performance Skills

  • presence (removed)
  • energy
  • timing (moved here from list of ‘dramatic elements’)
  • actor-audience relationship
  • focus (moved here from list of ‘dramatic elements’)

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12 Responses

  1. Michael says:

    Agree Justin. This first thing that you teach Year 7’s in Drama is about focus and that you can’t create a character without strong focus (along with the other expressive skills)Personally I look at the expressive skills at the minimum you apply to a performance. The dramatic elements are used to make a performance entertaining and interesting.
    Focus is a must and fits nicely in expressive skills.

  2. Borbs says:

    Thanks for a thought provoking post Justin! I referenced your blog and posted this on The Drama Vic Forum as well:

    I think ‘focus’ can be defined as both a dramatic element and as a performance skill (These are my definitions only and do not represent the VCAA’s definitions):

    focus n. (dramatic element)
    The place in the acting space where the audience’s attention is directed.
    ie. Where is the ‘focus’? Who has the ‘focus’?

    focus n. (performance skill)
    The actor’s ability to establish and maintain mental and physical control during performance.
    Was the actor ‘focussed’? She lost her ‘focus’.

    I would define an expressive skill as the skills associated with the actor’s physical instrument (voice, gesture, posture, facial expression). Performance skills are non-physical skills that the actor uses to define the quality (not in an evaluative sense) of the expression – energy, confidence, etc.

    By this definition ‘focus’ is closer to a performance skill than an expressive skill.

    There are several other definitions that I find odd from the VCAA:

    * why is posture not an expressive skill?
    * why does the VCAA Drama SD define expressive skills using the term ‘performance skills’?
    * How is ‘pathos’ a theatrical convention and not a dramatic element (if ‘mood’ is a dramatic element)?
    * Why is direction considered ‘stagecraft’ and not ‘play-making technique’?????

  3. annie says:

    hi why dont you have definations of the words like engaging for example

  4. Meg says:

    FOCUS is has 2 different meanings:

    1 Were the audiences attention is directed.(Element)

    2 Not breaking charater, not laughing or smiling staying focused. (Skill)

  5. Luke says:

    I agree with Methough i would beg to include another I always teach to students;
    3. The focus of the scene or situation.

    I always explain that just as the human context and tension can be broken into baser components, similarly focus is a composite of these three ‘MAIN’ foci. What the audience is induced to focus upon, what the actors are focussed upon (character, will, counter-will etc) and what the scene itself is focussed upon.

    This is senior QLD drama by the way.

  6. Luke says:

    Didn’t focus become a performance skill along with timing just recently? That’s what i’ve been told by my Drama teacher. Also i don’t think it would fit in with the expressive skills, as i’ve always thought of them as using the body, while focus is more what we think we are doing, using our minds.

  7. Brianna says:

    this is very hepful:)

  8. Brianna says:

    There are three types of drama within itself;
    – inside the action
    -outside the action and,
    -on-the-edge
    i am in gr9 and im going on to uni to study drama soon plz reply if you dont agree with what i just said or if there is somethingb you want to add

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