“Del [Close] said to us, when you are onstage at Second City, you can always get all the attention, you can always steal the focus and be the funny one. Just stick your finger in your nose and you can get focus. But to equal the other people on stage—to give them their moment and then take yours and go back and forth—that was the much more difficult and greater thing. To really have a game of catch with somebody is the true excitement of improvisation, and it’s so much more rewarding.”Gilda Radner quoted in Jeffry Sweet’s Something Wonderful Right Away. 1996. New York: Limelight
Editions, 1978. p.367
Gilda Radner’s recollection paints such an inspirational image of generous focus on the improv stage. Her preferred dynamic invites a greater awareness of how and when the focus is moving, and a deliberateness in making sure there is a clear back and forth that allows room for everyone to play. I’m discussing the specifics of giving and taking focus elsewhere so here would like to consider the concept of Focus holistically: what staging practices and techniques can we deploy that maximize the potential for elegant “games of catch?”
Oftentimes in my introductory college improv course I’ll assign a scenario (such as spectators at a specific sporting event) and invite smaller groups to quickly and silently construct frozen images. I usually stipulate not to include sports players on the field but rather to concentrate on an image purely in the stands. This will provide a series of tableaux on a common theme that generally provides very different examples of how we create (or obfuscate) focus on stage. Many of the observations below tend to bubble up in the discussion prompted by these brief explorations.
A line of excited movie goers wait in the early sales line for the release of the next sci-fi blockbuster…
For Your Focused Consideration
1.) Levels and composition. This is perhaps the most visual component and thus the most tricky to illustrate and discuss in a written medium. For those familiar with traditional theatrical staging tropes, I would consider these focus choices as largely “stage picture” considerations. Does a character assume a higher level or position on stage? Is someone standing away from the larger group in a way that gives them added attention? Is there a “chorus leader” who others are clearly deferring to in terms of their physical choices? In most instances, this featured character will emerge as the primary focus for that particular moment.
…Player A, a small child, scales their parent and sits atop their shoulders, now towering over the other movie patrons.
2.) Directionality and eye contact. Once the stage picture has been crafted and populated, it is a relatively simple adjustment to transfer the primary source of focus. You might have a wide array of heights and poses, or characters scattered somewhat randomly across the stage, but if players turn or gesture towards a common character there will rarely be any doubt as to where the intended focus is flowing. While it is arguably the simplest focus giving technique, the simple act of looking where you want to throw focus has few substitutes in terms of its effectiveness. Even in the most potentially cluttered stage picture, if everyone resolutely makes eye contact with the same player, the audience will follow.
…the earliest arrival, Player B, suddenly drops the fistful of coins they have been feverishly holding and the rest of the line watches on casually as they scramble on hands and knees to gather them all back up.
3.) Similarity and difference. Another delightfully simple but important method centers on the concept of difference. If everyone in the scene assumes a higher level, or everyone is throwing their attention to a common target, but one character is doing something markedly different (they are crawling or hiding surreptitiously in the shadows) then this outlier, more likely than not, will become the primary focus or at the very least serve as competition. This is an effective tactic when used carefully and deliberately, and a focus challenge when it is a player’s unconscious default. Less experienced players can tend to lack an awareness that their different choice in the land of the same might unduly create split focus. The more players there are on stage, the more problematic this lack of self awareness becomes.
…an aggravated business person, Player C, paces frantically up and down away from the movie line, whispering loudly a litany of complaints into their expensive cell phone.
4.) Contained and dynamic emotion. Regardless of the staging configuration an emotionally bold or intense choice will nearly always reign supreme in the quest for focus. An audience will be drawn into a character whose emotional climate stands apart from those of their teammates or who has an intensity where others feel more contained or subdued. (The opposite also holds true in that if everyone is in full Greek chorus mode in the midst of heightened despair, one villager calmly counting their loaves of bread to the side will draw your eye.) When we talk about presence on stage I think this is also a shorthand for this level of emotional commitment and interest that pulls the audience into the performer’s reality.
…a super fan, Player D, stuck uncomfortably in the middle of the queue, begins to frantically hyper-ventilate as the excitement of the whole affair just simply becomes too much.
There are unlikely to be many revelatory surprises in this list of focus shaping techniques, but in many ways that’s the main take away. Most of us have an innate sense of what helps or hinders focus but having this knowledge alone isn’t enough. We need to keep it front of mind in our work and use this “common sense” to help create the poetic focus exchange that Gilda Radner extols. If we retain awareness that a high stage position will likely grab attention, then we will probably exercise caution in striking such a position unless we know it’s an appropriate moment to shine. In scenes that become a little discombobulated, simply shifting our posture and giving strong eye contact can help set a scene partner up for success. Understanding that our quirky little side game will likely steal focus from where it’s needed, or that we need to commit to a more dynamic emotionality when it’s our turn to take the baton, enables us to sculpt focus rather than become subjugated to its whim. There is no inherently correct or incorrect way to move focus around the stage, but there are certainly purposeful exchanges and accidental or careless fumbles.
For a reflection on some focus techniques that prove helpful in larger group scenes go here.
Connected Game: Two Scenes