This exercise works well as an all-play experiential game or could provide a starting point for a large cast long-form piece. The Café, by design, involves a sizeable cast all interacting at the same time so necessitates Sharing Focus with purposefulness and finesse.
I teach this game with several stacked phases that gently increase the challenge and freedom. To begin, players are randomly assigned partners that will occupy various Café tables scattered aesthetically through the space. Each pair is given a number that corresponds to their assigned table as well as a scenic starting point or relationship. For example, table one may consist of two colleagues where one is trying to secure a promotion, while table two might be occupied by two former high school sweethearts reconnecting after many years. I’ve successfully explored the game with as many as nine or ten pairs, and you can also deploy one or two waitstaff as well that either have their station assigned a table number or they operate as free floaters as outlined below.
Phase One: Caller’s Choice
Players can begin either offstage or already stationed at their numbered table. It’s helpful to have a mix so that every vignette doesn’t start with predictable and potentially empty small talk or examining the menu. The caller nominates which table currently serves as the focus by announcing the corresponding table number. The selected players should use this signal to take the lead while others recede into soft focus and gentle activity. If one or more of the designated table occupants is offstage, this would also serve as an invitation for them to enter and take focus. When the caller names a new table, focus should shift to this new part of the stage with the current speakers finding a suitable button or focus give. Depending on the time available and the size of the cast, the caller may randomly rotate through the tables two or three times in this fashion. Characters generally remain at their own tables and in their original combinations for this part of the exercise.
Phase Two: Waitstaff’s Choice
This phase can be optional if it doesn’t suit your numbers or training goals. If deployed, phase two now utilizes a member of the waitstaff to move attention between the various focus areas. If you’ve assigned one or more players to fill this role, they now should strategically move from table to table taking the “eye of the camera” with them. I’ve also assumed this role as the facilitator, entering the scene as a fellow character. It’s important to note that the employee needn’t talk and typically shouldn’t become intimately involved in the action at each table or else you tend to get a lot of vignettes about food and the quality of the service: the intent is not for a member of the waitstaff to become the star of the greater story. Rather, the waiter’s mere proximity can reignite a paused action or facilitate a focus throw. There isn’t one way to make these focus exchanges elegant and, frankly, exploring the myriad of possibilities is part of the point of the exercise. There might be some minor shuffling of characters between tables during this round.
Phase Three: Players’ Choice
This can feel like quite a leap if you don’t deploy the second phase so it can be helpful to set some simple expectations as you step up the dynamic. Tables and players should now seek to give and take focus at will. Initially, smaller areas of focus should still serve as the scenic norm (as opposed to considering the whole Café as being in focus with all its characters fully activated at once.) Players should clearly give and take focus and may use this phase as an opportunity to shake up character combinations or just the staging in general. Often characters will intuitively begin to interact in larger clusters and it’s not uncommon for the phase to culminate in something resembling a full ensemble moment.
Phase Four: Necessity’s Choice
Especially if you’re using this frame as an experiential opportunity to explore focus and relationships, an organic ending frequently presents itself. It’s helpful to have something in your pocket in case this doesn’t materialize and recalling a prior dynamic will often do the trick. Returning to the waitstaff as focus facilitators can give just enough structure to generously move focus through the ensemble one last time. Similarly, the caller can reintroduce the device of announcing table numbers to give everyone at least a fleeting chance for some denouement, although by this stage of the play, occupants are rarely at their original tables so it can be helpful to announce these as the originating relationship numbers rather than the abandoned tables.
It’s no small feat to successfully share focus with so many active players onstage all developing their own characters and storylines. Generous awareness is key, as is a willingness to throw focus to those who might otherwise fall to the wayside.
Traps and Tips
1.) Pace yourself. It’s helpful to consider each phase as a conscious step in the dramatic arc. Phase one serves as the routine or introduction, creating independent threads to weave latet in the action. By the end of this phase or going into phase two, characters and stories should be truly ignited and committed to a rising action and energy. Phase three offers a less structured moment to explore a greater climax, confrontation or revelation that changes the world of the Café for most, if not all, of its occupants. And phase four allows space for the falling action, ramifications and tying up any loose ends or subplots. It’s dynamic for the tables to start in different ways and with different energies, but if one storyline resolves in its second appearance those characters will likely become passengers for the rest of the event.
2.) Control focus. Even when focus exchanges are being announced by the offstage caller, improvisers should seek to firmly create and pitch their own edits, buttons and transitions and not just wait to be interrupted by the caller (or waitstaff if you use the second dynamic too.) Vignettes should start, pause and then restart from a place of conviction and strength. Ideally outside edits should really just recognize what the players have done and want rather than impose a random adjustment. This takes heightened awareness and generosity as it’s tempting to just riff or sort of prolong the moment especially when you’re enjoying yourself, so remind all involved to…
3.) Do the math. If you’re exploring with eighteen improvisers sitting at nine Café tables and you keep having the focus every three or so vignettes you are unquestionably shutting out other players and potentials. Now improv math is a tricky affair as it’s likely that a handful of characters may emerge as more prominent voices when the scene builds to a climax, especially if they have come to represent protagonistic and antagonistic energies respectively or are higher status personalities in the environment in general. For these moments some focus unevenness will serve the greater need, but this shouldn’t become the norm. If you’re an eclipsing energy, look for ways to leave for a while, or pointedly give attention to a lesser featured patron, or fall unconscious… Just find a way to harness yourself. And the inverse is true if you’ve taken on a quieter energy or demeanor. The exercise is about sharing focus, so don’t justify reasons for not doing so.
4.) Earn connections. Finally, avoid the temptation to make everything related the second it hits the stage. If you start the exercise thinking “what is this all going to be about” or “how can I weave together everyone else’s choices” then the stories will quickly collapse in on themselves. I’ve routinely seen forty or fifty minutes of material rather easily discovered when each table begins by delightfully and selfishly figuring out their own deal and arc with little apparent regard for others’ content (but incredible regard for actively listening and sharing time and space.) If the boss at table one is immediately revealed as the spouse of one of the high school sweethearts at table two, the choice may feel desperate or manufactured. The same choice gently alluded to and foreshadowed in the second and third phases could, on the other hand, beautifully raise the stakes as the game approaches its zenith. Trust that these connections will emerge rather than grabbing at them from a place of panic.
I’m always sad when my class schedule doesn’t have room for this exercise as it has so much to offer and allows players to really sit in a character and ensemble experience for a protracted period of time. The evolving phases provide just enough structure to get the ball rolling and to set some parameters for sharing the joy of creation.
Connected Concept: Sharing Focus