The theater world is full of intricate terms and techniques. These ultimately help actors to perform their roles to the best of their abilities. One term used commonly among thespians is “breaking the 4th wall.” Let’s take a look at what this means, and how these terms help to keep actors focused and in tune with their character.
First, let’s get a visual of the fourth wall in our heads: picture yourself on stage, with the back curtain behind you and the two wings on each side of you. Think of these as your ‘walls.’ The fourth wall would be the invisible wall that connects you to the audience.
We use the term ‘breaking’ the fourth wall when we’re talking about interacting with the audience. Actors almost never want to break the fourth wall unless it’s a clearly defined moment in the script. If you break the fourth wall, this would mean you slipped up, and accidentally came out of character. Don’t worry, there are techniques you can practice to avoid this!
Actors avoid breaking the fourth wall by always keeping a center of attention. Some actors will fixate their attention either on the back wall of the theatre auditorium, or on another specific location. Focusing their attention, and acting like they are delivering their role directly to that specific spot helps tremendously.
Many things can be distracting as an actor: lights, camera flashes (even though photography is usually prohibited, there are always those few guests) motion, people standing, and loud noises. Not breaking the fourth wall can be a challenge when acting in front of a large crowd, but that’s why actors work so hard on passion, delivery, and attention.
Many of the audience members are really enveloped in the show, and want to be involved with the characters as much as possible throughout their viewing experience. Some guests will try to get the attention of the actors while on stage, wave their hands, or even call out characters’ names (as very unadvised in previous blog, A Guide to Theatre Etiquette). Actors try their best to stay on script, and keep things running as smoothly as possible despite these distractions.
If you’re an actor, there are many things you can do to help practice avoiding breaking the fourth wall. Avoid audience eye contact, and focus on your next move. When rehearsing, and during dress rehearsal even more so, pick your focus point in the auditorium and have it already decided before the show.
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