What are your hands doing?

ASC Drama Club snaps a group picture on the stage at the Blackfriars Playhouse during a field trip to the Blackfriars Playhouse for the 2019 Winter: Actors’ Renaissance production of THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR.

Seriously. That wasn’t a rhetorical question. What are your hands doing? What are they normally doing? What are they doing right now?

During the school year, I spend my Sunday afternoons with the fifteen 8-to-15-year-old members of the ASC Drama Club, a program the American Shakespeare Center hosts in partnership with the activities department of Staunton Parks & Recreation. We’re almost halfway through our semester of work, which will culminate with a performance of scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Blackfriars Playhouse as part of Shakespeare’s Birthday Party celebration on Sunday, April 28.

With the transition out of out of the exploratory, getting-to-know-you phase of the first few weeks and into the more focused, let’s-rehearse-this-play phase that will take us all the way to the performance date, I find myself thinking about the ways we try (and fail) to pay attention. Which brings me back to your hands. What are they doing?

Chances are that your awareness of your hands has increased exponentially since you started reading this article, which is the whole point of paying attention: attention heightens awareness. Putting attention on something makes us care about that thing, or, as Paul Woodruff states more elegantly in the introduction to his fabulous book The Necessity of Theater: The Art of Watching and Being Watched: “You pay attention because you care, and paying attention allows you to care” (20). The act of paying attention to which subjects merit how much of our attention at any given time is how I define the concept of “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is both an ancient human concept and also (like Hansel) so hot right now, and these days I find myself returning to it time and time again as the explanation behind so many human endeavors. Oftentimes, the difference between a successful venture and a failure is a small serving of mindfulness, and luckily for us theatre practitioners, theatrical training not only encourages but arguably requires the trainee to practice the concept mindfully. On that note, let’s return to your hands.

What are they doing?

Members of the ASC Drama Club were certainly aware of their bodies in space during their performance at Shakespeare’s Birthday Party in April 2018. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

I ask this question a lot. I ask it to myself and I ask it to my students, many of whom have come to realize that what I am actually asking them is, “To what are you paying attention? Is ‘your body in space’ one of those things? How about ‘other people’s bodies in space’? How about ‘your body in space in relation to other people’s bodies in space’? No? You weren’t paying attention to that? Well, how about now?

At the end of every meeting of the ASC Drama Club, I have my clubbers circle up and join hands so I can pass a pulse around the circle — a common group activity in which the squeeze my left hand gives the right hand of my neighbor passes to that neighbor’s right hand as they squeeze their neighbor’s left hand and so on around the circle until the squeeze comes back to my body via my right hand, at which point I reverse the direction of the pulse until we complete the circle again — and every time, I have to preface this activity to the clubbers on either side of me with the disclaimer that “my hands are cold.” Every time. (I have terrible circulation.) The iciness of my hands is neither news nor new; every clubber has heard my warning that they will be cold many times before. And yet every single time they yelp with surprise and turn it into a joke. “Your hands are COLD!” they’ll squeal, as if they are informing me of this fact rather than the other way around, and every time I wonder whether they failed to pay attention to my warning because it’s more satisfying to feel things publically — to require others to bear witness and participate in the feeling with the feeler as they feel it — than it is to feel the same thing privately, alone, with no one else to see.

This need to feel things collectively is something I notice over and over again in my work with students, and it’s been especially prominent in my work with the ASC Drama Club these last few weeks. Young people, it seems (and I remember, from my time as one) have a painful but selective awareness of their bodies in space. This awareness seems to disappear completely when they are feeling things privately (i.e. when they are not — or believe they are not — being watched) and then spring fully formed all the way to the top of the spectrum when they are cued into feeling things publically, under the gaze of others. I call this the “attention spotlight” effect, and while everybody will respond to it differently, everybody will nevertheless respond. There is nothing inherently good or bad about this response, but the effective group leader needs to be mindful of it, and gently but persistently encourage group members to do the same.

(The hands are a good place to start.)

Here’s how this dual awareness plays out in a normal Club activity: at the beginning of our meetings, we’ll circle up and play an energy-passing game like Zip Zap Zop. Clubbers have varying degrees of familiarity with this game, but after a few rounds we’ll get to a place where everybody pretty much knows the Club rules and we can pass energy around for almost a full minute before somebody messes up a syllable or a hand gesture and we have to start over. Or, at least, we could do that, if it weren’t for the attention spotlight effect.

Zip-Zap-Zop and the Attention Spotlight

To get in a good round of zip-zap-zop, every player needs to be paying attention to the game by:

  • Following the energy with their eyes
  • Keeping hips and torsos turned into the circle
  • Keeping arms (and hands) free to pick up the energy and send it on its way immediately (rather than having to uncross arms or take hands out of pockets first)

If all players are paying proper attention, then as soon as the energy comes to you on your turn, all that attention will come with it, which means suddenly…

everybody is looking at you.

You no longer have the ability to feel whatever you might be feeling privately. Instead, you now have to feel it publicly, under the gaze of others, and the simple act of getting rid of the energy (and your turn) through the approved methods of the game’s rules becomes much harder.

I encourage my Clubbers to play the game cooperatively and think of themselves as a team while they do so. When something goes wrong, correcting it is the job of the entire team; this way, they can support each other by smoothing over mistakes rather than calling attention to them. The attention spotlight is bright enough, no need to turn up the pressure by directing the beam towards our failures — and I encourage them to think of failure as a group experience rather than an individual one: when one of our teammates fails, we fail with them. Effective cooperation requires a certain sublimation of the self; the ability to diffuse the beam of the attention spotlight away from the core of your single solitary being and spread it over the whole group, instead.

How?

By doing all that is required of you in that moment.

No more. No less.

In this case, what’s required is a pass of the energy to the left, right, or across the circle with eye contact, a hand clap, and the syllable zip, zap, or zop. Be clear, confident, and quick. Use your natural voice. When the energy leaves you and passes on to the player to whom you sent it, let it go. The beam of the attention spotlight will slide off your shoulders and your awareness of your body in space will retreat back towards the private domain, its public duty done, and the game will continue. Which brings us back, one final time, to what your hands are doing.

 

Coming down from the stage and into the rehearsal room, Clubbers circle up for a first read-through of their final performance script. Note the changes in posture between this photo and the onstage group shot that appears at the top of the article.

 

Our ability to control our public reaction to the attention spotlight is, I believe, grounded in the robustness of our private reaction to the idea of the same. I sprinkled reminders throughout this piece about your hands and what they are doing to test your private response to being cued to think about your body in space — much the way my Clubbers are cued to think of the same whenever the energy comes to them in a game of zip-zap-zop. But where their reactions are inherently public, being subject as they are to the collective and immediate gaze of a roomful of others, yours get to be private (assuming you are reading this to yourself, unobserved — but then again, I don’t know your life).

What happened to you when I asked you to think about your hands? Did you move them? Were they already moving? Did you forget about them in the paragraphs between reminders? Do you forget about them often? What are they doing now? What are they doing when you’re driving, shopping, walking, talking? Are they cold? Sweaty? Still there? And now that I’ve cued you to pay attention to your body in space, what’s the nature of your reaction? Become aware of it, and how it impacts your ability to do no more or less than what is required of you in this moment. In doing so, you have mindfully taken a step towards healthy modulation of the attention spotlight effect, to the which I say: well done!

Now, give yourself a hand.

Wait, what are your hands doing?

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