This is a simple and effective exercise I use to introduce the foundational concepts of Giving and Taking focus. Focus Ball has multiple phases that you can tailor to fit your own specific needs.
Players form a circle and one person (typically the instructor) begins by playing with a mimed ball or similar, establishing themselves as having the focus.
Phase One: For the first round players move focus around the circle by giving the focus to each other. Only one player may be in possession of the energy ball at any given moment. When player’s have the focus they may morph or transform it in any way that gives them joy: a mimed ball may become a hula hoop, or baby carriage, or giant sandwich… literally anything that the player in focus can imagine. Players can hold on to the focus as long as they like, but the intended purpose of the game is to explore ways of moving the focus from one player to another. If players are keeping the energy for a minute or more each, they’ve probably missed the point a little! This phase should continue until everyone has been in possession of the focus at least once.
Phase Two: The game continues with new instructions that instead of giving the energy players should now exchange focus exclusively through a series of takes. Subsequently, players must retain the energy focus until someone else in the circle makes the clear choice to take it from them. Takes may assume various forms (subtle movements, large “grabs,” verbal offers…) but should not be resisted by the current player who possesses the energy. Players should continue to feel free to change the physicality of the energy ball as is their whim. Split focus is considerably more likely during this phase; in these moments, players should quickly determine who will now own the focus so as to prevent lengthy periods of confusion. As was the case with the prior round, play should continue until everyone has successfully experienced taking the focus from a teammate.
Phase Three: This next evolution is cumulative and players may now elect to either give the focus to someone else or hold onto the focus until it has been clearly and resolutely taken. Regardless of the way in which focus moves, only one player should still clearly and unequivocally possess the group’s attention at a time: all focus struggles should be quickly addressed in the moment. Players should also not cede focus into the ether or allow it to dissipate instead of knowingly moving it from one body to another. Many players will feel a strong preference for one or the other forms of exchange so encourage them to explore the less comfortable choice. And as before, the focus ball should continue to playfully evolve and take on as many shapes and energies as the group cares to imagine.
I’ve found that this exercise can generate great joy and playfulness when the ensemble exhibits patience, generosity and attention. The various transformations and creative focus shifts will usually prove captivating even for a more experienced group of players. Keep an eye open for focus struggles, such a player being left in focus uncomfortably for a protracted period of time. These types of breaches can quickly undermine the sense of ensemble and trust. If you’re playing with the company, it can be helpful to serve as the safety net in such moments.
Traps and Tips
1.) Beware of fidgeting. One of the many gifts of this exercise is a heightened awareness of how little it takes to inadvertently compete with or steal the intended focus. As the game is introduced I’ll often gently note if there is some behavior or extraneous movement in the circle that is creating a secondary area of interest: someone may be swaying, or stretching, or sharing a quick word with a teammate. As the game moves through the three phases, such movement becomes increasingly problematic. Keep an eye on the goal of only having one clear player in focus at any given time.
2.) Accept the transfers. Just in case it doesn’t go without saying, the contract of the game is that players will gladly accept any focus pitches that are offered. If you’re working with less experienced or less confident players, the mere act of being in focus may cause some understandable discomfort, but strive to encourage relishing this moment of creative freedom. Moving attention to the ever-changing energy ball and away from the player themselves can help a little in this regard. In moments when two or more players initiate a take (or less commonly when a give isn’t clearly directed at one person) allow room for those involved to solve the riddle but reiterate that it shouldn’t become a prolonged competition. Some rules of thumb that I use in general are that it’s generous to defer to a new energy (that is, a player who may have not been in the sequence for a while or at all) or to allow the player whose energy is clearly stronger or more committed to assume the focus with others quickly offering up clear gives.
3.) Value full participation. I’ve noted a similar idea elsewhere in my consideration of the warmup Go but beware of cliques or sub-games infusing the play in such a way that there are those who feel that they are included and others who are passively observing. An ensemble that is well tuned and self aware should know when a member has been accidentally excluded for a while or sense when someone may have unsuccessfully attempted to take focus and may be anxiously awaiting their turn in the limelight. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s easy for someone to dominate the game merely through their sense of joy and excitement. A simple reminder of “Is everyone getting to play?” or “Has everyone had a chance to try a focus take?’ can be enough to gently cajole the group if you sense an imbalance. Invariably some recurring dynamics will tend to organically appear – perhaps two players keep finding themselves trying to take the focus at the same time – and this is certainly part of the process. But especially if you’re working in a larger group it’s not unforeseeable that more introverted members may fall to the wayside if the group doesn’t display care.
4.) Explore the potentials. Other than making choices that could inflict physical harm, there aren’t really wrong choices in terms of focus gives and takes so much as more or less effective choices. A player could just reach out to the teammate to their side and grab the focus ball, or gesture across the circle as if they were snagging it with a fishhook on a mimed fishing pole. Players could give the energy by rolling it across the floor with a clear sense of direction and intent, or merely say another player’s name. A lot of the fun of this game is realizing the broad array of options at your disposal. While the concepts of give and take are simple, the manners in which they can be executed are not. That being said, players shouldn’t feel the pressure to come up with something that no-one else has done: it’s always fine for the mimed energy to just become a ball again, or for players to just toss the focus to their intended recipient. There can be a danger in over-emphasizing originality or creativity rather than just encouraging an environment in which these qualities might appear.
This exercise and the skills that it seeks to fine-tune have an important place in performance. Reducing distracting movements that might steal focus, providing strong focus gives with clear recipients, and developing an awareness of when focus has become strained or murky are all invaluable gifts for the improv stage.
Connected Concept: Give