Two Scenes is another of those scenic exercises where the title almost says it all, but this dynamic helpfully illustrates and polishes how to craft and move Focus around the stage.
Two pairs of players populate the stage and work on half of the performance area each. Both sides are assigned a location or premise: these may be related, such as two adjoining rooms in a house; or, may feel more random, such as a subway station and a garden gazebo. A scene is improvised in which focus moves from one part of the stage to the other through careful gives and takes from the players. Each vignette should be given sufficient time to develop and explore before returning the focus once more to its counterpart.
Player A and B are assigned a library as the stage right location and Player C and D have a dorm room. As the scene begins only A and B are present, scanning the shelves…
Player A: “You’re sure we’re in the right section, Anneliese? I can’t seem to find anything on our list…”
Player B: (checking the notes on their phone) “I’m still not sure why we can’t just use digital resources. The professor is so needlessly old school.”
Player A: (pulling a book) “I think we’ve left this too late. This section has been picked bare.”
Player C has quietly entered the stage left area and sat on a dorm bed.
Player B: “Maybe we should split up. I saw some of our classmates loitering around here as well.”
Player A: “OK. You take the high 800s and I’ll take the low. And we can meet back here with what we’ve found.”
Player B: “Sounds like a plan.”
Player A exits in one direction with B darting off in the opposite. As they do so, Player D joins C in the dorm room.
Player D: “Hey, I’m sorry if they hurt your feelings. My teammates can just be dull sometimes.”
Player C: (clearly upset) “No, it’s fine really. It was nice of you to invite me to the mixer.”
Player D: “I really wanted to – I just forgot how different my worlds can be at times!”
Player C: “I didn’t need you to make excuses for me…”
Player D: “I’m sorry, that definitely wasn’t my intent. I just thought that you might not know all our inside jargon…”
Player C: “I come to your games all the time. I’m not completely clueless.”
Player D: (apologetically) “No, you’re right. My bad.”
Player A has reappeared from behind the shelves…
Player A: (whispering) “Anneliese… Anneliese…?”
Player C: “I just want to listen to my music, ok?”
Player C puts in their earbuds and rolls over on the bed while D looks on. Player A continues to lurk and whisper and is finally rejoined by B.
Player A: “Anneliese!”
Player B: “I’m not finding anything. I think we’re going to have to take this up a notch…”
This dynamic requires thoughtful focus exchanges as now players must share the work with their immediate scene partner as well as the pair of improvisers across the divide (while hopefully also maintaining an awareness of the audience and the greater story arc as well.) Careless or clumsy gives and takes can quickly decay the tempo and dynamism of the work.
Traps and Tips
1.) Err on the side of generosity. A standard observation that applies to most if not all improv scenes is to allow the start of the scene a little room to breathe and find its footing. If you immediately start fighting for the focus – and pulling it back and forward – neither of the two scenes will likely have a grounded balance or routine. Especially in the first “round” don’t overwhelm the stage; it can be helpful for one side of the stage to remain unpopulated initially to this end so it is abundantly clear which pairing is making the first move. Dynamic focus moves may feel dramatically sharp and sudden, but it shouldn’t feel as if the players are anxiously competing with each other.
2.) Justify and sell the silences. An unavoidable component and challenge of this scene is the silence: if players are sharing the stage time equitably their half of the stage will need to clearly and quietly give focus for half of the scene. Effective and interesting ways to achieve this sharing will generally emerge from the playing itself but improvisers need to actively explore and apply justifications that help this conceit “make sense.” I typically advocate “soft freezes” when you are not in focus which just means that you keep the action going but without any dialogue or sudden movements that are likely to steal the audience’s attention. Other helpful strategies include sporadically leaving your location or engaging in an activity that requires your concentration, such as thumbing through a library book or listening to your music. As scenes become more heated it is almost a necessity that gives and takes increase in tempo as it will strain credulity if characters hold intense emotions for artificially long periods of time without dialogue.
3.) Experiment with the focus shifts. In addition to playing with the silent element of the scene, bravely explore how to move the focus in general. Most edit functions (explored here) can work well in this setting: from verbal tags and repeats, to physical entrances and exits, to purposeful gives and takes. As modeled in the written example above, I find gentle entrances a helpful indication to your partners across the divide that you are preparing for the focus exchange. Similarly, announcing a pending exit or foreboding a move to quiet activity allows the second scene to confidently pick up steam. Trailing sentences with the feeling of an ellipses can also serve well as long as the speaker telescopes their intent: “I just don’t know if I can…” It’s likely that transitions will and should pick up as the scenes approach their climaxes; hopefully players will have built rapport and a sense of the scenic flow by this stage of the action so that focus exchanges can occur with brave resoluteness.
4.) Sharpen your awareness. The scenes will tend to stumble and interrupt each other if players do not actively pursue a heightened awareness that values the successes and needs of both scenes equally (after all, they are really just fragments of the one larger story arc.) If the “other side” needs a little more time to develop an important plot point or build an emotion, it is in everyone’s interests that you don’t offer an edit unexpectedly out of an excitement to get back to your own storyline. Instead, deploy edits strategically to best serve both vignettes, pulling focus when your partners have reached a plateau or need a re-set, and then offering up the focus with a line, energy or gesture that they can use within the context of their premise. It’s human nature I imagine to focus a little more on our side of the scenic line, but this game offers an embodied opportunity to recognize the import and contributions of the whole team. Also strive to make sure everyone has a chance to lead and follow (and give and take) as the scene unfolds. If one player on either side of the stage tends to always facilitate the take (perhaps in a manner reminiscent of a bulldozer) it’s likely that their scene partner might not have as much room to contribute their voice.
Once the scaffolding of the game is learnt and understood there are many possible adjustments and additions to ramp the exercise up yet another level. Content, themes and even characters can now move from one world to the other in either subtle or explicit ways. You can also adjust the physical positions of the two scenes, perhaps one is now downstage while the other is upstage. I’m also intrigued to play the game with two locations that essentially overlap each other on the stage, but perhaps that’s a challenge for another day!
Connected Concept: Focus