Fear and Attention

Oct 14, 2022

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer. – Simone Weil

In 1989, when I was selected as the next Artistic Director of Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island, I was living and working in San Diego, California. Jack O’Brien, the acclaimed Broadway theater director and, at the time, the long-time Artistic Director of the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, telephoned to invite me for dinner at his home. I believe that one of his intentions that evening was to prepare me for the position of Artistic Director that I was soon to undertake in Rhode Island. After a delectable pasta dinner, we sat in his living room and talked about the trials and tribulations of running a major regional theater. He took it upon himself to give me some advice. He warned me to never walk into the theater building in a bad mood. Everyone, he warned, catches your mood.  “Go to the costume shop and touch the clothes,” he said.  “Your mood matters, what you touch matters. What you pay attention to matters.” 

Attention is the prime ingredient for every director. But what is it that keeps us from bringing the highest level of attention to each moment in the process of directing a play or running an institution?  Perhaps the pressure of decision-making can feel overwhelming. So many people need answers, and each problem demands consideration and responsiveness. The designers, the actors, the playwright, the stage management team, the producers, the PR and marketing departments, all need to hear from you, and they also must have confidence in your abilities. In addition, it is crucial to feel and show empathy for the tasks that each individual in the vast team is handling.  

What keeps me from attending fully to a situation is usually fear. Fear that I do not know enough. Fear of failure. Fear of losing the team’s confidence. The universal trigger for fear is the threat of harm, real or imagined. But fear can also be learned. I can learn to be afraid of nearly anything. If attention is an artist’s main ingredient, fear might be the principal enemy. In the creative process, attention, engagement, and active participation is what I am after. Everything I do either builds attention or lessens it. In the midst of a rehearsal, when I am not creating a rapture of attention, I am losing attention.  

I once visited a physical therapist who was also known as a great healer. At a certain point, he asked me where I felt fear. I pointed to my head. He asked me if I could feel fear from my ovaries. No, not at all. Ever since then I have purposefully brought my attention to the lower part of my body when I am directing a play. I avoid sitting down in a chair. I stand or, as the hours go by, I lean on a tall stool in order to fully sense what is happening on the stage or in the rehearsal hall from the lower part of my body. This allows me to bypass the pre-frontal cortex of my brain as much as possible. The pre-frontal cortex is the analytical, strategizing part of my brain. I place the script on a music stand next to me so that my focus can remain on the stage when referring to the text. In this way, fear does not enter the frame of the picture very often.

Posture helps. When energy rises up into my head, I can become fearful. With my energy lower in the body, I am not so apt to be fearful. Also, focusing on what is happening around me, rather than only on my own inner neurosis helps me stay connected to what matters. 

The actress Cherry Jones once told me that when she is onstage in performance, in order to mitigate her own fear, she locates an anchor in the midst of the audience area, perhaps the steps between rows of seats. She focuses her attention out there on that anchor and so she remains connected to herself and the house. I emailed her recently and asked if I had remembered that correctly. Her response: “I do remember telling you that. I’d try to find a neutral dark place in the house devoid of lighting instruments, human heads or exit signs where I could fall more deeply into my brain.  Clutter free.  My brain is so one tracked any distractions derail me!  Must stay utterly focused.  Sometimes those dark safe places are especially essential.” 

To try is to explore the outer boundaries of one’s own capacity as well as the world beyond oneself. – Rebecca Solnit

For a director, the first rehearsal of a new project is the opportunity to engage and galvanize the team. For this reason, the first day of rehearsal often feels scary. These precious moments can set the tone for the remainder of the process. Remembering to breathe helps a great deal. I try to contain the anxiety lower in the body and, at the same time, focus my energy outward. I practice physical containment and emotional expansion. 

The theater is a site of extremes, and it is natural that the process of rehearsal requires me to face one difficult task after the next, to climb a mountain of obstacles, and to meet the inevitable challenges as they arise. Conflicts and differences of opinion are bound to happen while rehearsing a play. A rehearsal can be a slow-motion crisis that must be surfed with spontaneity, intuition, and even joy.  

Nevertheless, fear does rise up in me more frequently than I would like to admit. I am frightened by a difficult confrontation. I am afraid of disappointing others. I am afraid of disappointing myself. Fear rises up in me when I feel that a wrong turn has happened in a process. Also, I do not like being rejected, hurt, laughed at, or forced to face the unknown. But difficult emotions are also teachers. I try not to run away from the fear. Instead, I pause to feel its energy and notice that it does eventually dissolve.  Fear passes.  And fear is an indication of something that I need to pay attention to. If I do not pay attention, the fear can escalate and overpower what I am doing. If I attend to the fear, it will gradually dissipate. 

The quality of your attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking. – Nancy Kleine

A director is meant to create an environment in which a potentially disparate group of people can come together to make a singular event. My job is to enable actors and designers to express themselves as individually as possible, while inspiring them to do so along a route that I have already chosen for the group as a whole. Managing a broad coalition that still has a distinct vision as its aim may seem like a contradiction, but it is also a goal.