There is a lot to think about in an improv scene. Who is my character? What location are we in? What is the ‘game’ in this scene? Am I giving details? Am I listening for details? Wait…, what did my scene partner just say? On stage, maintaining focus is one of the most crucial elements of a great scene. Improvisors talk about “staying in the moment.” That refers to not letting your mind wander as to where the scene should go, or where you want it to go. It also means not thinking about anything happening outside of the stage. The moment is happening now, and while there are times to pull out a good call-back and reference something said earlier, you don’t plan a call-back. If it’s there, you take it, but it has to relate to the “now.” It’s very obvious when an improvisor forces a line that doesn’t really relate to the scene, and it’s almost always at the expense of the scene.
We’ve written about the importance of remembering names before, and nothing grinds a scene to a halt as when a performer calls another performer a name that he has been assigned himself. The misses aren’t just names. We’ve seen memorable miscues as it relates to occupations, the relationship between two characters, gender, you name it. Usually, these miscues are a result of a loss of focus and keeping focus isn’t easy. Let’s go inside the mind of some improvisors as they take the stage.
One of the performers asks for a suggestion from the audience to start the scene. Through the calls, the word “princess” rings out. You step toward center stage with a scene partner. There are 200 people in the audience all staring with a smirk that says, “We’re ready to laugh, and are half-smiling because we assume we are going to. Don’t disappoint.” Your scene partner starts a sweeping motion, as if he’s got a broom. Your mind races for connection. How does sweeping tie to princess. Okay, so is he Cinderella? If he’s Cinderella, does that make you a step-sister. Your scene partner wouldn’t play a known fictional character, would he? Shouldn’t you be creating new characters? So, is he looking to put a new spin on this story? Okay, think: what can you do to change the story? If you tell Cinderella she can go to the ball, there could be an interesting scene here.
This internal conversation is all happening in less than a second. You’ve got to make a move. You’re going to be the kindly step-mother.
Just as you’re about to say something, your scene partner bemoans, “Chop, chop, Wilfred. The king says this whole castle has to be swept before Princess Gertrude gets here. It’s Tuesday, and you know how the king likes a good beheading on Tuesday. It ain’t gonna be mine, I can tell you.”
He’s not Cinderella. And, given the internal dialogue you were having, do you think there’s any chance that you’re going to remember all details given: your name, the princesses name, the fact that the king likes to behead on Tuesdays. Unlikely. It’s because you weren’t focused. It may seem like you were completely focused on the scene, but you weren’t focused on the moment. You let your mind wander to a story that wasn’t happening, you were thinking about where the story might go and making assumptions based on relatively no information.
What might a better choice have been? To stay completely attuned to the moment.
The audience yells “princess.” Your scene partner starts sweeping. This is all you know and you focus on this. It’s not your responsibility to “figure out” what your scene partner is doing, it’s your responsibility to respond directly to it in a positive and supportive way.
So, you could pick up your own broom and start sweeping. In this case, it would be aligned with your scene partners first move. But you don’t have to. You could yell, “Princess Beatrice, what are you doing disgracing yourself with commoners work?” But wait, wouldn’t that throw your partner off, who was planning the princess arrival scene? No. Because he shouldn’t have any preconceived notions on where the scene is going either. Maybe he was about to say that, but if he’s good, he doesn’t have a complete scene played out in his head and is also just focusing on the moment. So going a different direction doesn’t throw him off his focus. Together you build a scene, moment by moment, interaction by interaction, focusing on the needs of current situation.
In our professional lives, certainly there is value in planning for the future. Just as the long term goal of the improvisor is to have a great scene and a great show. However, that future, like the present, will be defined by all the moments that came before it. Stay in the moment and stay focused. The show will turn out fine.