“the actors must be dialectical, must know how to give and take, how to hold back and lead on, how to be creative. They must feel no fear (which is common with professional actors) of losing their place, of standing aside.”Augusto Boal, Games for Actors and Non-actors. Trans. Adrian Jackson. London: Routledge, 1992. p.237
In everyday parlance I imagine most improvisers would like to be thought of as giving performers. In this general context the phrase conjures images of generosity, selflessness and an ability to suspend personal ego for the benefit of the scene or the ensemble as a whole. When we talk of the specific technique of Giving in improv, we tend to frame it in terms of focus transference on stage. In partnership with the complementary skill, taking, it refers to how we move the players’ focus – and thereby that of the audience as well – to where it is most needed or will do the most good. Successful focus giving, however, also has much in common with the more generic use of the term, and by moving attention carefully and lovingly we can, in fact, embody many of the admirable improvisational qualities listed above. This is not to suggest that strong focus takes cannot likewise serve as an act of kindness and care, but moving the lens of the scene to another when you sense it is wanted or helpful is one of the “simplest” but also most important skills we can develop and wield on the improv stage. To give focus in this manner is to simultaneously give trust, agency and the space to create.
For some general ways of strengthening focus on stage consider exploring Commandment #2 here, and my earlier post on Focus here provides guidance on crafting stage pictures with a strong sense of purpose and directionality.
A clutter of characters populate the high-powered board room. There are murmurs that the PR company is struggling and that it may be in irreparable trouble. In the excitement, characters are inadvertently talking over each other and creating multiple competing areas of focus...
Ways to Give
Here are some seemingly basic but undeniably effective ways to pitch the focus to a teammate particularly in moments where the action may have become ill-shaped:
1.) Verbal gives. Verbal clutter onstage often results from multiple players unsuccessfully trying to take the focus from others who are engaged in a similar tension themselves. In such instances assuming a stronger take may result in just magnifying the verbal cacophony rather than assuaging it. A pointed verbal give, on the other hand, can hopefully encourage other players to also throw their weight and energy behind another character thereby providing a more singular focus. There are several simple examples of this move: simply saying or repeating another character’s name with conviction will often suffice. If it is accompanied with a loaded question, request for information, or a call for leadership or a more prolonged speech act, the move can take on even more power. Once this verbal redirection has landed it is then equally important to provide silence so that the assigned character may then unwrap the proffered gift.
Player A: (above the boardroom din) “Chelsea, you promised us with the last round of cuts that we’d be out of the red…”
2.) Physical gives. If you find yourself in a truly chaotic soundscape it might not prove viable to offer up a unifying verbal cry. In these instances a clear physical offer can similarly redirect scattered scenic focus. If strong eye contact with your intended recipient is not enough or is going unnoticed, you can add physical volume by pointing, gesturing or shifting your posture towards them; hopefully others will mirror this choice (or just simply turn to see where you’re looking) which can be enough to provide one character with sufficient attention to take the scenic reins. When gestures or gentle turns are insufficient, consider more boldly adjusting your stage picture and relationship with your endowee by assuming a weaker or lower position onstage (taking a knee, sitting on the ground, bowing your head…) or coming downstage so as to keep them open and in the prime real estate. All it takes is for a few teammates to see your choice and replicate it for the intended focus to now have sufficient critical mass to proceed.
Player A looks to Player B (Chelsea) and recognizes that they are displeased by the ruckus. Player A then nudges those around them to relay this information, looking back to B each time. Soon the majority of the room has thrown the attention to Chelsea awaiting their response…
3.) Energy gives. While this subset of gives typically involves both verbal and physical components it often embodies a more multifaceted dynamic. Focus throws can be imbued with status relationships – generally taking on a clearly lower status position will give more space to your designated scene partner. Or you can color your relationship with an empathetic emotion marking the endowee as someone who is particularly or uniquely affected by the current situation. If we clearly make someone else’s feelings or needs preeminent this does a lot in terms of gifting them the focus in a crowded moment. This may take on a positive or uplifting hue when we display love, care or concern, or may explore a more antagonistic dynamic if our character shows fear, envy or disdain. Regardless of its specific intent, a clear subtextual energy can quickly help direct a scattered focus.
Player A, who has been sitting at the head of the table, suddenly turns to look at Player B (Chelsea?) standing at the door and quickly gathers their things to vacate the chair.
Player A: (nervously) “I’m sorry. I didn’t see that you’d arrived.”
They move aside with deference and purpose. As B assumes their seat, Player A procures them a glass and pours them a water.
4.) The biggest give of all (sometimes)… And sometimes the most elegant and effective form of giving focus is to simply take the improv leap and leave the scene. If you sense that the interest and potential of the scene lies elsewhere (or could with some generous space) and that this player is comfortable and “in the zone,” then an exit may prove the most successful give of all. I think it’s important in such a moment that you are consciously pitching to strength or else it may feel more like an abandonment or lack of support rather than a magnanimous present; although, frankly, the remaining character can always call back on their desired scene partner if you have overshot the mark. Particularly if you are in a scene that is more bustle than content, using your own exit to encourage others to follow suit can further magnify the helpfulness of your choice, although there is undoubtedly a merit in just taking a low focus exit as well if you sense you presence is part of the problem rather than a path forward.
Player A suddenly stands up and looks to the door.
Player A: (darting for the door) “Chelsea is here. I was just finishing up my break. Don’t most of us still have jobs to get to…?”
Skillful giving serves as a reminder to elevate the choices and journeys of others and that we need not (and should not) seek to govern the action alone. This strikes me as a helpful embodiment of Boal’s charge to be willing to “stand aside” as artists so as to empower the voices, stories and journeys of others.
Connected Game: Focus Ball