“P” is for “Presence”

“Acting requires presence. Being there. Playing produces this state. Just as ballplayers in any sport are present in the playing, so must all theater members be present in the moment of playing, in present time”

Viola Spolin, Theater Games for Rehearsal: A Director’s Handbook. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1985 p.3


When we refer to a performer as having Presence on stage we are often referring to a quality that on some level can feel a little amorphic. Without exception such an observation is certainly intended as a compliment, and many a casting director has credited this characteristic or the lack thereof as a determining factor in their decisions – “I like them but they just don’t have any presence…” It is extremely difficult to embody and refine a quality that many consider almost intuitive or second nature, but there are certainly improvisational tendencies that contribute to the present improviser’s success. Here are a few:

Attributes of the Present Improviser

1.) Existing in the moment. As Spolin observes, improvisation is a theatre of the present moment and successful improvisers must thrive in the here and now. In spite of the multitude of competing needs and stimuli, players with presence exude a sense of comfort and belonging. Yes, they might occasionally let the audience see them sweat, or fleetingly acknowledge the impossibility of the task at hand, but their focus is the current process and journey. The improv world around them may seem topsy-turvy, but they are grounded or at least give the audience the impression that they know what they are doing. Just as one wouldn’t want to go to a professional sporting event and ponder whether or not the players know the rules of the game, this holds equally true of the improvisational player. Engaging performers at least appear to know the rules and so can just playfully explore where the scene wants to go next. The improviser with presence lives on the tightrope; the performer without spends their time worrying about the potential fall.

2.) Engaging actively. To pursue presence is also to fully commit to the current events and actions. Regardless of whether or not you are standing in the limelight as the protagonist, or happily to the side as an ensemblist, enthralling improvisers are themselves enthralled in the unfolding stories of their imaginations. When our attention wanders on stage it should be no surprise that the audience’s investment might do the same. Or worse, an improviser who has temporarily “checked out” might grab the focus but for all the wrong reasons. Active engagement, on the other hand, gives heat and emotion to the stage, especially when it is dynamically filtered through the lived reality of the character. The improviser with presence finds a way to care about the ebbs and flows of the action; the player without often only has their attention turn on when they have a “good idea” or know they are in focus.

3.) Heightening energy. I consider good theatre as heightened and well edited life. With very few stylistic exceptions, scripted playwrights work diligently to minimize or edit out the mundane human moments and interactions so that their dramatic arcs have maximum effect. When improvising in realistic modes the same should hold true with players looking to imbue their scenes and characters with an emotional depth worthy of the stage. Present actors successfully “fill the space.” On a technical level this means literally eschewing filmic nuance when performing in larger venues where such choices won’t carry to the back wall. If you’re not seen and heard then it’s unlikely that you’re communicating effectively. On a more visceral level this means that improvisers embody characters worthy of populating the stage, and that these personae have important stories and dreams. The improviser with presence makes brave choices of emotional weight and significance that connect to the audience; the actor without withholds.

4.) Embracing receptivity. And a present performer fully accepts the given circumstances and the intentional or subliminal offers of their partners by reacting honestly and fully. This orientation allies with the improvisational commitment to change and flexibility. It is not enough to stand and bear witness to the events on stage. Instead, fully present players embrace the scenic vicissitudes and use them to dig deeper or soar higher. Without sacrificing their commitment to the here and now, such players gain fuel and inspiration from their awareness of the multitude of factors framing their performance, joyfully justifying changes to the stage from fellow technical improvisers, incorporating and adjusting to the audience’s reactions and contributions, or pausing for the unanticipated airplane flying overhead during their outdoor show. The improviser with presence doesn’t flinch from interactive creativity; the artist without becomes rattled.

Final Thought

The accolade of presence can often serve as a stand in of sorts for confidence and the way in which we present ourselves to our audience and fellow collaborators. The more experience we gain, the more likely that this confidence will build correspondingly. But there are also definite skills and habits that we can actively nurture: silencing our internal judges to focus on the here and now, investing fully in the unfolding action, seeking strong connections to our characters and work so as to raise our commitment and stakes, and playfully taking the unexpected in our stride.

Related Entries: Abandon, Change, Commitment, Focus Antonyms: Absence, Distractedness, Passenger Synonyms: It (as in, they have “it”)

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Ritual Scene

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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