Zip, Zap, Zoom: Focus and Online Improv

I’m teaching a couple of classes through Zoom for SAK University at the moment (one on narrative and the dramatic arc, the other on Shakespearean language and style, – thanks for asking!). During my spring semester at Rollins College in Winter Park, I also had to suddenly move an Acting course and Fundamentals of Improv class online with little notice as well. Needless-to-say it’s a steep and daunting learning curve to make theatrical performance work through an often less-than-reliable online medium. I know I’m not telling you something you don’t already know there! Putting aside the discussion for perhaps another day whether such a move is advisable or laudable, online platforms certainly pose new challenges (opportunities?) for live improvisers. (I do think it’s important to note here that companies such as the Hideout Theatre and Impro Theatre here in the States have been making valiant and exciting experiments in this area.)

A current student posed the question with this new technological reality in mind as she’s exploring a new project of her own: “What exercises have you found to be best for working on sharing focus in a scene?” First, I should contextualize my following musings with the disclaimer that, like many of us, I have been thrown into this new performance reality with little warning and that my experience in this world is no deeper than most. But here are a few focus-related discoveries in terms of what has seemed promising to me when working scenes and games in the digital classroom that has become home to so many of us overnight.

1.) Keep it small. At first I aimed to keep my syllabus and structures as planned, but I quickly found that the more students or improvisers that we used in a scene, the more likely communication missteps undermined the veracity and flow of the action. When I simplified nearly all of my scenic work into pairs (sometimes with a third waiting with “camera off” in the proverbial wings in case they were needed), the process and results became noticeably stronger. In this way, actors can also set their scene partner as their exclusive focus on the screen and have a fighting chance to make a more honest and fruitful connection. If you are playing in a larger group, turning off your camera as your character leaves is an obvious but helpful choice as well to minimize visual clutter.

2.) Don’t ramble. A move online has, for many of us, made us rely too heavily on our verbal gifts as improvisers and it’s easy for our bodies to become disengaged and for our words to lose specificity and agency. If we are cognizant that our words must carry the majority of our meaning and offers, then we must be economical and deliberate with those words. We should use each word with care, and make sure that we are providing clear and dramatic final punctuation. As our partner(s) await behind the screen, it doesn’t set them up for success if they are constantly unsure if we have, in fact, finished our sentences… or if… we’re still contemplating… how we might finish… our sentence. You get the picture.

3.) Use old-fashioned gives. My introductory improv classes always include a unit on giving and taking focus as I note, without a playwright or director in the traditional sense of those terms, we are responsible for always knowing where the focus should be on stage at any given moment. Especially if you’re in a larger group, throwing the focus carelessly into the air will typically create either a prolonged awkward silence or a cascade of overlapping dialog as your teammates try to figure out who was organically next in the scene. Use character names often (or familial equivalents, honey, son…) to mark the next likely speaker especially as the scene is being established. Clearly shift your focus and the target of your emotion on the screen to designate your focus throw, and explore tonal shifts to provide clues to your partners: most of us don’t talk to our parent with the same energy/voice that we talk to our significant other, and we can mine these distinctions to help share focus around.

4.) Scenic painting can help. If you can find simple ways to refer to your environment, and the people in it, you can set each other up for clear entrances and initial dialog exchanges. If we’ve been sitting at that restaurant table waiting to be served for what feels like an eternity, observing the carefree waiter who seems to be avoiding us, when we note that “I’ve finally caught his eye” and “he’s coming over,” we have set this actor up for a clear focus transition. If you don’t have the technology or skill to make clever green-screen background changes or add ambient sounds, heightened scene painting strikes me as a must in general as it allows for more fully fleshed out worlds to play within.

5.) Err on the side of interruption. This may be a personal preference, but the dead air between speech acts in zoom-based improv is one of the features that makes it most uncomfortable for me as an observer. If we’re using some of the strategies above, we then need to jump into the scenes with abandon thereby risking cutting off our partner(s). If someone interrupts you, embrace that they clearly thought you were wrapping up (or that you should have been wrapping up). If, as a group, this becomes too caustic or combative, check in afterwards and adjust the aggressiveness of your takes accordingly. Connected to this is making sure that your scenes have an energy that would justify such a strong approach to focus gives and takes. Deadpan or under-energized characters are equally as problematic on the screen as they are on the stage.

6.) Use the technology. For good or evil, this is the way many of us are improvising at the moment. If your audio cuts out, that needs to be justified. If you didn’t catch what someone said, you need to honor that and ask them to repeat it or make an assumption. If you’re a professional at changing backgrounds or have someone who is adept at wrangling different improvisers and screens onto a common online stage, then make sure that person is deeply thanked and use those dynamics to the best of your abilities. Again, perhaps a personal preference, just note that meta scenes about characters using zoom have largely been played out so look for content elsewhere.

It’s a little difficult for me to pinpoint precise exercises to develop each of these strategies as, in most cases, it strikes me that it’s largely about getting in reps under these new performance conditions; however, I think moving through each of these ideas as the point of concentration would help a lot. “We’re going to do 2-person scenes exclusively for this next round,” or “Let’s do some vignettes with strict limits on word counts,” or use the short-form game “Speak in Turn” to practice using a deliberate and repeating order. Then rinse and repeat, focusing on the techniques that feel most useful to your particular group and circumstances.

For those teaching and performing improv online, do these strategies resonate with your own best practices, or have you found other ways to make the most out of your zoom room?

Thanks for the question! Feel free to pose others in the comments below or by emailing me HERE.

Cheers, David Charles.
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2020 David Charles/ImprovDr

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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