“Exercises for understanding form and context are part of Zaporah’s tools. She shows you how to value the container, ‘everything has a form, even chaos has form’.”Peg Jordan. “Zap! On the Improvisational Edge.” American Fitness 9.1 (Jan-Feb 1991): 8(2).
I love large cast improv projects and one of the built-in challenges of these productions is the curse of split focus. When things are flowing well, the players and audience are in accord as to where focus should be placed. As the cast number increases beyond one, the potential for inelegance and confusion increases accordingly. Split Focus refers to a company’s inability to quickly address these moments of competing efforts to gain and hold the audience’s attention. If the company can’t decide where the action is most cogent, it follows that the audience won’t figure it out either and it’s likely that serious structural or story challenges are brewing. Sharing focus through gives and takes provides the necessary direction and form to ameliorate what can otherwise easily degrade into unintelligible improvisational chaos.
A scene begins between Player A and B as they are loading hay bales onto their tractor.
Player A: “We’re going to have to get up to the high pastures early this morning. I heard some wolves last last and I want to check on the cattle…”
Meanwhile, Player C and D have started making out in the background…
Meanwhile, Player E mimes falling from a great height in a parachute…
Meanwhile, Player F is making their way to the stage through the audience while encouraging them to sing the national anthem…
Splitting the Difference
Hopefully it’s a given that ninety-nine percent of the time protracted split focus won’t do you any favors. (Consider exploring my other multiple entries collated here for ideas on addressing these challenges.) The contrarian in me thought it worthwhile to muse here about those rarer occasions where unclear focus might serve your greater agenda. So here are some moments and ways that orderly chaos might actually support your creative needs.
1.) When one unified experience isn’t the goal. Keeping the wide breadth of improv practices in mind, there are many performance traditions where a linear or common narrative isn’t the primary intention. Environmental or interactive shows, in particular, privilege individual and unique experiences over the illusion of one totalizing narrative. One can easily argue that no theatrical piece really succeeds in telling all of its audience members the same story as each audience member brings something different to the table that frames and informs their experience in a different way. This reality of multiplicity is front and center in experiential pieces where my interaction in one corner of the space might be unwitnessed by anyone else at the greater performance event. In such instances, competing foci is part and parcel of the design, although many shows in this tradition, such as Sleep No More, also seek to craft more climactic moments that might require and benefit from steering focus to one singular happening.
2.) When it serves as a greater metaphor. Improv that doesn’t restrict itself to the style of realism can also successfully deploy split focus towards specific artistic ends. The chaos of unmediated focus can enable emotionally charged moments that creatively reflect greater societal ills or, perhaps, metaphorically reflect the fragmented mind of a character or situation. Here chaos is embraced as its presence enhances or reveals greater truths and tensions. Perhaps there is a swirl of a cluttered stage to highlight a moment when our protagonist cannot find a helpful path forward, or the stage is densely populated by Boalian figments voicing all-at-once competing thoughts or demands as a crisis unfolds, or a character that has been made to feel invisible suddenly becomes obscured by a chaotic relay of focus-grabbing entrances and exits. When you step away from the conceits and strictures of realism, split focus certainly has an innate power to communicate a powerful array of emotions and psychological realities.
3.) When it is used deliberately to build energy or tension. There are yet other useful possibilities where split focus functions as a means for generating theatrical energy and drive. The key word in this description is undoubtedly “deliberately” as clumsy split focus is more inclined to dissipate energy and thwart the audience. But when executed with a clarity of purpose or carefully woven into a greater structural arc, split focus can provide a much needed punch of dynamism. This can particularly be the case in long-form pieces that might heavily rely on patterns such as two-person scenes or intimate locations that, after a while, might start to lull an audience due to their predictability and repetitiveness. Throwing in a well-placed ensemble-based moment can break such patterns and provide a helpful jolt. To some degree, the group scenes between the various rounds of a Harold can function in this capacity, or a high octane crowd scene insertion that raises the volume of a story at a critical moment. I’ve come to use this strategy in several of my theme-based long-forms where personal narratives culminate in seemingly competing cacophony only to suddenly give way to focus and calm once more. The contrast between these two experiences – chaos and stillness – manufacturers a crispness that can prove quite effective when executed with finesse.
4.) When it is orchestrated or conducted. Lastly, and a little cheekily, I would contend that split focus can work on the improv stage when it is carefully housed and conducted. Now, I will concede that strictly speaking this might not quite meet the textbook definition of split focus that I have proffered above, as in conducting the focus you will typically clean up unhelpfully conflicting stage choices. But in some improv modes and pieces – such as the Café which I deal with here – some element of split focus can become an inherent part of the improvisational tapestry, providing a background from which sharper moments of focus emerge, shine, and then become subsumed once more into the primordial ooze of the greater stage machinery. As is the case with some of my prior observations, this approach might belong more seamlessly in experiential pieces where the lived reality of the participants is of optimal concern (rather than any off-stage witnesses to the event). Many of Boal’s ensemble-based exercises might fall into this category as well such as Cops and Guerillas, and Murder at the Hotel, especially if an outside eye or director periodically manipulates the action by prioritizing or unifying specific events or actions.
Improvisation wrestles with the eventuality that it could descend into complete chaos at any given moment – this is unquestionably part of the appeal of the form. But when left unintended, split focus can hasten this creative disintegration. Like so many other improvisational concepts that on the surface appear destructive, we should not lose sight of the fact that we can also harness this power in aesthetic and interesting ways. What’s more, inviting a little of this madness into our work can encourage us to explore different theatrical styles, tones, and agendas.
Connected Game: Invisibility Scene Coming Friday (EST)