“Each improviser shares a small portion of responsibility for the piece on stage. They must focus their concentration on the work of the group – not the work of any individual.”Charna Halpern et al, Truth in Comedy. The Manual of Improvisation. Colorado Springs: Meriwether, 1994. p.39
When it comes to moving focus around on the improv stage you really only have iterations of two choices: you can give focus by directing it to another, or Take focus by personally owning the next dramatic moment or step. In thriving scenes that have found their rhythm the process of give and take will probably feel rather effortless and organic – the focus ball is likely just passed around with joyous ease. In other instances when the action has become more frenetic, stalled, or unsure, focus shifts need more robust attention and direction. In these situations, giving can appear more generous – you are moving the focus to someone else after all – but scenes can suffer from too much deferring or “passing the buck,” especially when the stage may be a little crowded or overwrought with potential next moves (or, alternatively, completely absent of any next idea). In such moments a chorus of well-intended generosity can, in fact, drown the scene if no-one is willing to at least momentarily captain the ship. A give, at the end of the day, that the recipient doesn’t want or has no idea of how to use in a timely fashion isn’t really a gift so much as an awkward curse that they may bunt or outright reject. Frequently the brave and constructive move is to take the reins during such moments of unsurety so as to unify the scene’s direction.
What began as an effective and playful game of various townsfolk gathering in the communal square to share a litany of woes has slowly devolved and lost its steam. The crowd scrambles to find a connected next move…
Ways to Take
Here are some seemingly basic but undeniably effective ways to own the focus in moments where the action may have become lost:
1.) Verbal takes. An effective focus grab consists of a transparent vocal choice that communicates you’re game to make the next story contribution. This may take the form of loudly clearing your throat, making a brief utterance – a “hey,” audible exhalation, or scream – or just announcing your intent: “Quiet down everyone, I’ve got something to say…” In smaller scenes that have established clear communicative patterns you should be able to take just with your dialogue alone, but in crowded scenes some form of preamble or warning helps you stand out from the verbal mumbling that may now characterize the scene as a whole. A little wind-up, especially if pitched through the chaos, allows your teammates a second to process your request and (hopefully) adjust accordingly. Regardless of your specific verbal choice, it needs to clearly display intent and hit the stage with energy and conviction. The tradition of speaking your truth allies nicely with this strategy, providing a mechanism for you to acknowledge that you are experiencing split focus or waning energy and are now making a move in an effort to remedy this situation.
Player A slowly emerges from the churning mob.
Player A: (imploring) “Friends, friends, please! This chaos will get us nowhere. Our grumbling will never force change unless we organize and unite. I volunteer to take our concerns to the assembly…”
2.) Physical takes. When you’re trapped in verbal cacophony or a vignette characterized by a succession of interruptions and over-talking, a strictly verbal take will struggle to stand out from the clatter. In these moments, leaning into a definitive physical offer will serve you better. Generally speaking, seek a way to stand out or separate yourself from the proverbial rabble. Move to the strongest stage position available to you where the majority of your teammates can see you and throw you their attention. Assume a higher level atop a platform, chair, or table, place yourself firmly center stage, or dramatically embody a pose that disrupts the current staging norms. If everyone else is standing or sitting and you start passionately pacing, or building a barricade, or boldly recording complaints on an oversized parchment, this physical contrast should move eyes to you. When in focus, you can then elect to heighten your physical choice, add a verbal element, or redirect the energy to another suitable contender.
Player A, weakened by their subsistence living, gradually struggles forward, each step more painful and fatiguing than the last. Slowly, the other townsfolk become aware of their compatriot’s plight, and gently make way for A’s path. Finally, when they have arrived in the middle of the crowd, their body can no longer serve them and they collapse with a gentle sigh. They pointedly reach towards a fellow player…
3.) Energy takes: Whether you’re leaning into a verbal, physical, or hybrid focus take, endeavor to exude an appropriate energy, emotional intensity, or urgency. High status characters, in particular, are uniquely equipped to step up in times of division. If you currently hold or can reasonably adopt such a status position, you may be the best option for determining or voicing the logical next step. Be aware that when high status characters exert their power (if this power is accepted and uncontested by others in the scene) that it may largely silence or squelch other existing dynamics, so such a authoritative assertion should not be made lightly. It can be anticlimactic to circle back for any sustained amount of time to more trivial games or bits when the stakes have suddenly exploded, especially if the taking character holds a significant status advantage. So if current dynamics have untapped potential, you might want to give them a little room to build. Similar focus shifts can also be heralded by new robust emotional offers that introduce deliberate and significant elements. This is a helpful equivalent to a high status shift that plays equally well from a low status initiator, such as an injured peasant who returns in terror having just been attacked at the assembly gates.
A previously anonymous figure in the crowd, Player A, steps forward while removing their hood and revealing their august identity as the leader of the assembly. The crowd audibly gasps with some instinctively bowing at the sight.
Player A: (calmly, perhaps eerily so) “My cousins, I have heard your concerns. I am not blind to your suffering and pain. I feel each wound myself…”
4.) Strategic takes. In my companion entry on gives, I posit that sometimes the most gracious give is actually an exit. The complementary tactic in terms of taking would be a well-timed edit or entrance. A scene currently-in-progress may not have the self-awareness that it has outlived its usefulness or interest, or may have realized this state of affairs but not be able to find a viable “out” from amidst the turmoil or growing malaise. Offstage eyes often recognize and can diagnose needs that elude those currently lost in the weeds of creation. It can be risky adding yet another character to the stage if it’s already overcrowded, but a well-timed entrance with that previously absent piece of information or integral character might be the most efficient way forward. Entrances, when offered with gusto, are by definition focus takes as the audience (and ideally other players) will naturally be drawn to the new offering on stage. If you’re entering a cluttered scene, status, stakes or emotional intensity will serve as your best friends as an undersold arrival could go largely ignored thereby leaving you equally as stranded as the teammates you were hoping to rescue. If a scene has lost all momentum and agency, almost any committed energy will likely prove sufficient for the cause. Once you resolutely possess the focus, you can then strategically move the scene to richer pastures, edit the action so that something new can rush to the stage, or pitch a culminating button to bring the current scene to a close.
Player A runs onstage from the direction previously established as the great assembly. They are out of breath and clearly panicked.
Player A: (after a moment) “They’re coming… the guard… the assembly has sent the guard and they’re going to arrest us all. I have a family to support. I can’t afford to be found here fomenting revolution…”
Player A looks with fear behind them before launching themselves once more out of the town square. Others. now equally panicked, quickly follow Player A’s cue and soon the square is empty as the lights transition…
It’s a jarring experience having the focus suddenly thrown to you when you least expected or wanted it: the resulting nerve-shaking situation more closely resembles pimping or gagging than a generous give. Well-executed taking, on the other hand, allows a focus exchange born from confidence rather than panic. Aggressively taking too often or as your norm can come across as bullish or bulldozing, especially if such choices are routinely designed to shut down or silence the emerging ideas of others. This misguided use of the “taking” tool is as highly problematic as always throwing away your opportunity to participate so that you can ride along risk-free as a scenic passenger. But it’s beneficial to hone this fundamental focus skill so that you can deploy it when it’s needed by stepping into the fray and leading from strength for the good of all.
Connected Game: Tag-Team Monologue