A signature habit of improvisers who are keen to seek Approval from others while performing is dropping out of the action to “check in” with their instructor, director or peers in the house. This game provides a playful mechanism for challenging this habit and it goes by the name Eye Contact. I deploy a series of games that riff off this theme, and here’s the first iteration.
This dynamic generally works best in pairs. Players obtain a suggestion for a relationship or scenario. During the course of the scene, the characters must sustain unbroken eye contact at all times. And that’s the game!
The suggestion of “first date” is obtained.
Player A sits expectantly at the table, eyeing the door to the restaurant relentlessly. As the door swings open and Player B enters, they immediately lock eyes. Player A calls over.
Player A: “I’m over here by the window.”
Player B shuffles through the other tables, all the while keeping a firm gaze on A.
Player B: “I recognized you immediately – you look just like your profile picture.”
In an awkward act of attempted chivalry, A stands and tries to pull out B’s chair, but instead they engage in a graceless dance, all the while maintaining eye contact.
Player A: “Here, I thought you’d like the seat with the better view…”
The focus is very much on focus in this game! It is, frankly, unnatural to sustain such rigorous eye contact for a protracted period of time, but the game seeks to explore how this might deepen or enrich the character connection while having the added advantage of making it more difficult for players to “check out” of the scene as it unfolds. When you first play the game, improvisers might need some gentle reminding through sidecoaching to prioritize this goal.
Traps and Tips
1.) Attempt to make the eye contact as natural as possible. It can be tempting to exaggerate or over-commit to the sustained eye contact and while this can certainly add some awkward comedy into the mix, it tends to degrade any potential for nuance or more honest connection. The game isn’t a staring contest so much as an exploration of an intense relationship. It’s okay to blink or quickly glance at a prop as long as you catch yourself and resolutely return to the challenge at hand.
2.) Justify but don’t explain away the eye contact choice. As is the case with all games, if you “name” them they tend to loose veracity. Sure, one of our characters in the example above could offer, “You’re so mesmerizing, I just can’t take my eyes off of you!” but this will likely puncture the dynamic. Feeling this way, on the other hand, and playing it subtly as subtext, is likely to add more interest and energy to the scene. Maintaining this level of eye contact is undeniably odd, but if it’s just accepted it can unlock some really interesting choices and playfulness.
3.) Don’t ignore your environment and any related activities. Part of the fun (dare I say absurdity) of the game is striving to make the rest of the scene as typical as any other in terms of staging and physicality. Avoid the trap of just sitting and watching each other. Still move around your playing space, interact with props, and engage in any pertinent activities. Watching our two daters navigate menus, glasses and consuming their meals, for example, adds wonderful new layers and opportunities.
4.) Honor any discovered rules if additional characters enter. If you’re exploring this game in a rehearsal or workshop situation, I’d encourage you to keep the focus on the two primary players, but this dynamic has great potential in performance as well. If a third entrance is needed, perhaps a waiter (or an ex if we wanted to add a little heat), discover and sharpen how this influences the foundational rule. Perhaps both Player A and B completely ignore this new arrival, maintaining their connection at all costs. Or they could both break their eye contact as if they have been caught in an indecent act, only to return to their intense gaze once the intruder leaves. Or the game may now incorporate the new arrival, shifting how the eye contact is held or inviting one of the established players to leave so that a new intense connection can be explored. There are numerous possibilities, but it’s usually more effective to follow and build upon the first solution that hits the stage. Perhaps the least effective approach, from prior observations, is all three players trying to hold eye contact with both of their scene partners at the same time as this tends to decay any semblance of reality although it might serve as a fittingly ludicrous finale and button.
In addition to serving as an interesting exercise or scenic frame, embracing such a strong eye contact choice can be an unexpected and dynamic doorway into a scene in general. If you struggle with checking out of the scene or checking in with your director, this is also a simple technique to encourage maintaining your focus behind the “fourth wall.” Heightening the game can result in surprisingly pleasing scenes with an oddly comedic twist, while pursuing subtlety and connection with this device can truly enrich your onstage relationships and chemistry. Everyone in your ensemble will also become painfully aware and self-conscious of how they make and sustain eye contact in their everyday life after playing this scene a few times!
Connected Concept: Approval