This is my second installment re-visiting the “Ten Commandments” of Theatresports. I first encountered these guidelines in the 1980’s during my high school days in New Zealand. These nuggets of wisdom continue to intrigue and inspire me some 30 years later, and I’m looking at them again with this new sense of perspective. See my first entry on the first commandment here if you missed it.
The second commandment reads:
Thou shalt always retain focus
Focus is such an integral and challenging element of improvisational theatre. In our scripted counterpart, you have a text, directors and design team to expertly move focus around the stage and construct important moments so that the audience will, at least theoretically, catch the most significant details of the action. On the improv stage, the improviser assumes all of these creative roles, and the likelihood is greatly increased that you’ll encounter split focus (the dynamic of having multiple characters or areas of the stage competing for attention in a non-aesthetically-pleasing fashion). Focus is a powerful tool and an important consideration in our work. Some of my large-scale improv productions have had as many as 15 improvisers all onstage at once, and so this has become an area of particular interest as a director.
Thinking About Focus
If we’re in agreement that clear focus is an important aspect of our stage work, the question then becomes how do we navigate this effectively, especially in our larger scenes? Here are some ideas that I’ve been exploring of late.
1.) Know who the scene is about. If you’re operating in a more narrative/story-based mode, this can be easier than in more thematic or game-centered work. Generally speaking, if your protagonist is onstage (or antagonist), then the audience is likely to be interested in how they are responding to the action as it unfolds. Certainly, there can be sidebars and scenes that deliberately feature a supporting character or group, but it’s easier to move focus around if there is a collective sense as to whose story is currently being featured. If this isn’t you, or you are not directly involved in an exchange with this character currently in focus, your best bet is generally to exert patience unless grabbing the focus is highly deliberate and strategic.
2.) Pay attention to status. In very large scenes, status becomes critical to move focus around effectively, and if in doubt, players should defer to the highest status character on stage especially if they are currently unquestioned in their power. (This may or may not be the aforementioned protagonist.) Some warning here: this does not mean that the highest status person should monopolize the dialogue (which is a temptation and trap) but rather actively assess who may be in need of some space or focus to move the story or game forward. In this way the highest status person can almost serve as a conductor, making sure all voices have a chance to contribute. In theatrical worlds, such as improv Shakespeare, where kings and queens are often present, identifying the highest status person is often a little easier than in contemporary pieces where this might take a little more concentration on the unfolding action. It can also be extremely helpful for the high status characters to leave larger scenes to ensure those who might not realistically speak in their presence have a chance to do so. If status is still a relatively new dynamic for you as a player and you want a primer, it still doesn’t get much better that Keith Johnstone’s chapter on the subject in Impro.
3.) Defer to strong energies. Connected to the status awareness above, players should also defer to large energies and emotions, especially as they enter the playing space. In addition to serving as a helpful theatrical strategy, this also can add an element of realism in that most of us would step back if an argument or confrontation suddenly stumbled into our path. This allows the actors who have taken focus to relish it for a while and pursue their truth without interruption. The high status character can then help segue the focus elsewhere as the scene reaches its zenith or interrupt the action at an appropriate moment if this needs to occur in order to strategically suspend the ultimate climax of the scene.
4.) Stack your entrances. Something that I’ve played with to some success in my long-form work is building the final scene by gradually layering entrances of the ensemble with those characters less connected to the greater problem or story entering first, and those most likely to be needed for the climax finally sharing stage as a later or final combination. This provides a growing stage picture and energy that helps the final steps of the rising action, while giving softer or simpler story arcs a chance to have their final moment before they are eclipsed by more charged hues. The key in this strategy is being brave if you consider yourself a supporting or more minor character and getting to the stage early as it can create an odd energy lull if you wait too late in the game and don’t have much of weight to offer to the rising action.
5.) Move then talk. In larger scenes this is almost a must, but it can be oddly challenging if this isn’t a tendency already in your improviser tool belt. While some actors might have a perfect sense of timing and be able to stealthily slip a Shakespearean droll aside into the mix without undercutting the scene’s momentum, many of us do not, and there can be a true act hunger in larger group scenes. If characters move with clear purpose, preferably from weaker to stronger stage positions (from the margins of the stage towards the center, for example) this signals everyone that they are primed to take focus and make an offer. This decreases the likelihood of improvisers interrupting or speaking over each other and places the next speaker in a strong position to control the stage. This can also be a helpful trope when you’re not in a large group scene as well and promotes varying the stage picture and utilizing the environment. The companion note would be that it’s equally helpful for those who have had their moment in the sun to then move from stronger to weaker stage positions in order to make room for others.
6.) Choose your camp. When there are clear and contrasting points of view emerging in the scene, perhaps between our protagonist and antagonist, it’s helpful for you to know your camp as a character. Who do you side with and why? Whose fate is inextricably tied up to your own? Even if other characters are the primary drivers of the scene, this gives you an honest and active connection to the stakes and outcome of the action. It has the added bonus of also informing your staging choices (should I go and stand behind my person to give their presence more volume) and helps sell moments of tension and/or the climax of the scene (should I be rejoicing or commiserating at this moment)? It’s certainly possible that there might be more than two camps, especially in larger ensemble pieces, but this strategy can lose its effectiveness if everyone becomes a camp of one.
I’ll confess I’m actually a fan of contained moments of chaos on stage where focus is not immediately clear or consistent; however, I’d preface that statement with some parameters. I think the dynamic needs to be used sparingly and with purpose. Focus needs to quickly return at the completion of the moment. And any chaos needs to build and serve a greater purpose (such as intensifying energy before a significant structural or story moment). In this manner, the tight focus attained after the moment of chaos has even a sharper edge in comparison.
The Bigger Picture
When we talk of retaining focus as improvisers, this also clearly extends to the import of our attention on the stage and our need to give all of our energy to the action that is currently unfolding in real time (as opposed to allowing our mind to wander away or start to contemplate our next choice or action). This is one of the greatest gifts and challenges in spontaneous theatre: prioritizing the here and now above all else as that will provide the key to the next honest moment. When we allow those other voices in our heads (our judges, our playwrights, our critics) we can easily lose the very foundational quality of our craft that drew us to this art-form in the first place. This can also apply to our long-range goals as artists: if our intent is to become stronger and more giving improvisers, then we should not drift from this focus in our work.
I’ve concentrated on larger group scenes above as these are innately more difficult, but these techniques are equally helpful in a smaller scenic clusters: a third entrance shouldn’t interrupt a clearly higher status character already onstage, for example, until acknowledged, unless this status bump is a strategic move. Moving focus poetically requires us to engage our director eye a little as improvisers, and view a scene not exclusively through the lens of our individual character’s needs and wants, or frankly, with the ego of our inner improviser craving maximum stage time. What are your favorite ways to share focus on a stage?
Connected Game: All Together Now