“Every actor on stage is responsible for everything that happens. If some actors are not aware of the stage picture, other actors must move them.”Viola Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater. A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques. Third Edition. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1999. p.147
If a (stage) picture is worth a thousand words I fear many improv productions may only routinely communicate a handful of syllables with their proclivity towards a stand (or sit) style of performance. How we arrange ourselves onstage alongside our imaginary or real set elements can add volumes to our scenic narratives. A thoughtful Stage Picture deepens meaning, detail, and dynamism while simultaneously directing focus and energy. An uninspired smattering of players on an ill-defined set, on the other hand, will have a contrary effect, distracting from even the most riveting or connected material. Ignoring our staging drastically reduces our options and effectiveness as performance artists.
Player A, a teacher, enters their office to find Player B, their student, sitting comfortably and defiantly in the chair behind the teacher’s desk.
Player B: (without vacating the teacher’s chair) “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Player A takes a moment to assess the situation, takes off their jacket and casually hangs it on the hook on the back of their door. They conspicuously push the door fully open.
Player A: (nonchalantly) “I was held up at a meeting.”
Player B starts to toy with various papers and books on the teacher’s orderly desk, as if daring then to respond.
Player B: “You asked to see me.”
Not taking the bait, Player A crosses instead downstage to look through their window out onto the campus green.
Player A: (without looking over their shoulder) “I want to talk to you about your performance in my class….”
Player B: “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Player A: “I was held up at a meeting.”
Player B: “You asked to see me.”
Player A: “I want to talk to you about your performance in my class….”
Some Additional Analysis
While the text of both of these vignettes is identical, the tone, details, and tension are night and day. The first iteration resembles a status battle as the characters fight to upend or uphold the expected power relationship between a teacher and student. The second version stripped of any staging or set details could evolve down a similar path but is equally inclined to become a sit and talk exchange devoid of any initial spark. Stage pictures and blocking (in the traditional theatrical sense of the term) make all the difference.
1.) Help through strength. When you are the featured character or engaging in a scenic moment of significance, place yourself in a position of strength. If you can’t be seen or heard by the audience (and fellow players) the brilliance of your choice may become extinguished rather than further ignite the action. In many cases, the strongest position can default to downstage center, but if overly used this orientation quickly becomes creatively dull so invest in crafting well-furnished environments that provide levels, power positions, and interesting staging potentials. In any case, you should be unobstructed by other characters and set pieces. Assuming a traditional placement of the set pieces in the above illustration with the desk facing the audience, Player B has made a powerful choice with the simple gesture of waiting behind the desk in the teacher’s chair as this is likely where the energy of the office naturally flows.
2.) Help through weakness. To Spolin’s point, we also have a responsibility to help our fellow players stay out of staging trouble. Some performers can have a tendency to gravitate to a strong stage position regardless of whether or not it’s appropriate for their character or the rising action. When we assume a weaker stage position, we actively help our teammates by giving them a strong physical opening to claim as their own. This doesn’t necessitate that a generous staging “give” requires the improviser in question to upstage themselves or make it difficult to be seen or heard either (although if you’re taking on a true ensemble or crowd role, a staging choice such as kneeling or having your back to the audience can display true magnanimity). In most cases a self-aware player can enable a stage picture that throws focus to their partner while keeping both characters visible. The teacher’s decision to cross downstage and look through the imagined window without turning back to talk provides such an example of gifting your partner an easy way to remain open and seen.
3.) Help through design. The stage picture battle can be largely won or lost in the opening moments of a scene as hastily made set arrangements can haunt the scene that follows. Assuming a proscenium stage for our office scene above, if the teacher’s desk is oriented so that it directly and flatly faces the audience, you might be in for some trouble. If the student establishes the teacher’s seat facing the audience – the logical configuration – there won’t be any good options if another character needs to sit opposite them. (The only silver lining could be that imaginative players might accept this challenge and find novel ways to avoid problematic staging choices.) This often happens when making improv cars out of seats too: if four chairs are clumped in a square face on to the auditorium, the backseats become almost unusable. Exploiting angles, adjusting for sightlines, or gently raising otherwise obscured areas will generally ease this dilemma. It’s also common improv practice to place large imaginary set pieces on the “fourth wall” (or between the company and the audience). Doing so can motivate staging without obstructing the improvisers. Player A utilized this practice by placing the office window in a downstage position.
4.) Help through contrast. Returning to the office scene above, Player B has made a dynamic power move by sitting in the high status chair, but even if they had initiated an uncontested status relationship by sitting where they “should” there is still a great value in the teacher not mirroring this choice. Stage pictures quickly become mundane when there is no variety or contrast. As a small scene, these improvisers might get away with sitting opposite each other for a while, but such a predictable choice is unlikely to add much to the overall experience. Especially as the onstage number of characters increases, a helpful mindset is to seek ways to break or augment the patterns around you. This can be particularly challenging in environments where there is a strong expected norm – such as movie theatre seating, a traditional lecture classroom set up, or passengers riding on a long haul bus – but even here a little ingenuity can reveal staging potentials. I advise that if you look to your left and right and see fellow players standing or sitting exactly the same way you are posed, then it’s your responsibility to find a playfully appropriate way to shake it up a little. This may need to be subtle, especially if your intent is to serve as part of a larger supporting crowd – shifting your body angle or sitting on a chair in a character-specific way – or could open the door to a bolder choice entirely – safely climbing a sturdy set piece or luxuriously lying on the ground.
5.) Help through decluttering. Finally, while this suggestion wouldn’t apply (yet) to the two-hander scene above, work to unclutter the playing field of superfluous characters, and unnecessary set pieces too if your venue incorporates real furnishings and props. The first simple but important step in this latter process is making sure your company has a good practice in place for efficiently striking prior scenic elements so that the next scene doesn’t find itself awkwardly performing in an inherited amalgam of furniture from scenes gone by. In terms of characters, always be on the lookout for opportunities to leave, especially if your work is done. I further consider the critical question of “Should I stay or should I go now?” in my entry on exits here. As we strive to construct beautiful and helpful stage pictures, however, it’s difficult to successfully frame characters and conduct focus when there is an excess of non-contributing human bodies. If Player B (or Player A for that matter) started the scene in the office with their posse (an idea that tickles me a little even as I write it) there may come a time that streamlining the action down to the two featured players will enable stronger and more well crafted staging.
Considering the messages (intended or otherwise) that are being sent by our staging practices allows us to tap into the state of improv mindfulness that infuses most engaging performances. Both the what we are doing and saying and the how we are doing and saying it demand our equal attention as performers. A failure to sufficiently consider the latter will nearly always undermine the former. If you have a habit of just standing (or sitting) as a player, the first step towards remedying dull stage pictures can quite literally just be taking a first step or refusing to sit down in that beckoning chair in the first place.
Related Entries: Exits, Focus, Levels, Physicality, Side Support Antonyms: Split Focus, Sticky Feet, Talking Heads, Upstaging Synonyms: Blocking, Staging
Cheers, David Charles.
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Connected Game: They Said, They Said