Often times Improv Players are so focused on what to say they forget one of the most important elements of theater – movement. Using these directing concepts in your Improvisation can often make a good scene great.
When creating a scene, two players simultaneous write and direct their own performance. Here are a few tips to consider when directing yourselves in a scene. Remember movement choices – pantomime and blocking – must get the same “YES! And…” treatment as your spoken lines of dialogue.
Think about it, there is great theater and dance that uses no words. Entire stories are told through movement. But think of the last time you saw a show where someone just talked. BORING! Even most college professors MOVE when they lecture. The most beginner speech makers use hands and body language to help support the words. To be great performers of Improvisation we MUST discover movement and consider theater directing techniques in our performances.
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Just to cover the basics, take a look at this diagram.
It is important to understand space on a stage. Space between the players, your relationship to the audience on stage and more.
Downstage Center stage towards the audience is the strongest position on stage. When you make a big statement, that is the most effective place to be to make sure your intentions are fully realized.
In the Downstage Left and Right corners you have slightly less “power” but these positions are great for being coy, or manipulative. Maybe you are being flirtatious. Maybe you are trying to get the other character to do something. Maybe you are just investigating your imaginary world. Explore these downstage corners to see how you can change the tone and mood of a scene just by your position on stage.
Upstage Left and Right corners are the weakest positions onstage. They are great places to express distance, shyness, fear, and other less strong emotional states. Maybe your character is emotionally or physically hurt and hiding from the world. Maybe you are simply hiding and preparing to catch another character by surprise. Don’t get lost upstage, which is typical of new performers and an expression of insecurity. But using these spaces to express these feelings of you character can be an element of powerful story telling.
Great live theater performers and directors are constantly seeking new ways to use position on stage to enhance the characters’ moods and emotions and a scene’s tone. Experiment in your scene work. Move around and see how stage positions alone effect you , your scene partners and the audience.
Where do you face when standing on stage?
FULL FRONT: Player faces the audience (or camera). This is considered to be the strongest of all positions. Used too often you lack relation with your scene partners. When you have something important to say, turn to the audience and say it. WARNING: “BREAKING” the fourth wall is not the same as acting to the fourth wall. We say put all of your pantomime towards the audience. But if you actually look the audience in the eye, you bring them into your scene as characters in your story. On purpose then can be a lot of fun. Accidentally you can erase the imaginary world you and the audience have created together.
FULL BACK: Players face completely upstage. With purpose a FULL BACK position is a display of defiance, turning your back to the world, or just a character. Too much time away from the audience and they will want their money back. Too often and one gets lost upstage. Accidentally employed and an actor seems rank amateurish. I have watched entire scenes where a newbie stood right in front of another player full back to audience for most of the scene. They were making decent choices in the story telling but we never got to relate to their characters. The audience gets uncomfortable. You may hear your teachers/director say, “WHERE’s THE AUDIENCE?” NOTE: Making the audience feel uncomfortable is powerful, again ONLY when on purpose. Accidentally you lose their attention and respect.
PROFILE: You are standing looking directly at your scene partner. Spend too much time here and you audience feels left out. You will hear teachers/directors say, “Cheat out more.” But when your character has to make a strong point to another character go for it. This can be a very strong position of confrontation.
STANDING AT THE QUARTER or 1/4 FRONT: Your body position is sharing relation with both audience and scene partner. You may hear your teacher/director say cheat out. Most often in live theater we stand at the 1/4. It is a relatively strong position that allows us to relate to our other actors on stage while keeping the audience in on the story. When in doubt make this your GO TO body position.
THREE QUARTER BACK: Your body is angled partially upstage. This is relatively a weak position, often weaker than a FULL BACK. FULL BACK often shows defiance or a way to throw focus to something upstage. 3/4 back can be used to show shyness, fear / cowering, sly maneuvers, whispering secrets in one’s ear and more.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE LEVELS
Another way to make scenes more interesting is to play with levels. There is the classic game SITTING, STANDING and KNEELING (Or LAYING DOWN is come circles). When two actors always just stand and talk to each other it’s boring. Experiment with kneeling down, crouching, sitting, standing on a chair, and other ways to mix up the visual looks of your scenes. Also see how standing completely erect versus slumping effects your characters. How does gravity effect your characters (age, illness, injury etc). Make some big bold choices.
A director is always considering focus. In TV and FILM the camera tells an audience where to look. In live theater it is up to the actors and director to help steer the audience focus to help tell the story.
Simply put, this means that in the moment there is a single focus. Most often in a simple scene the Primary Focus is the person talking. Everyone else on stage is throwing focus to the speaker. Once that speaker ends their speech, the Primary Focus shifts to another character.
How do we create Primary Focus?
PRIMARY FOCUS is create when every one and every thing on stage is focused on a single subject. To achieve this everyone on stage should be 100% focused on the subject. If a speaker is the focus, all other players should be relatively still with their eyes and bodies facing the speaker. In traditional theater we use lights, costumes, sets and props to help develop a flow of focus, planned by the director and design team. In Improv all we have is our pantomime and our eyes. Where we look the audience will look.
If you fidget, your movement will steal focus from the speaker. Young and Amateur performers often steal focus accidentally simply because they are not focused in the moment. This is very distracting to the audience, not to mention the teachers hate it.
However, a purposeful fidget by your character my steal focus on purpose. Be aware of your movement on stage, as it is very powerful in regards to these matters.Make big choices, but sometimes that big choice is a subtle movement full of meaning.
After you deliver your details, YES ANDING your scene partner, throw all focus to your partner. Be a great team make. Don’t hog the scene or focus of the scene.
TIP: Throwing focus to your scene partner also helps you become a better listener. As you stare at your partner’s character you listen with your eyes as well as your ears. As you once again respond with positive reinforcing details, your part in writing the scene will be so much more full of rich content, because you are completely working as a strong team.
SHARED FOCUS / SPLIT FOCUS / SECONDARY FOCUS
Shared focus is when to characters or object share equal weight. Perhaps two characters are shouting at each other face to face, splitting center stage and for that moment almost become a single primary focus.
Split focus is like a 7-10 split in bowling. Those two foci are not together and the audience will find themselves torn between the two. Perhaps two characters are at the opposite downstage corners. Both have equal importance. The audience’s eye rapidly goes back and forth so as not to miss anything important.
Secondary focus, which is the most common of the three, has the two foci out of balance. Perhaps a character is monologue-ing their life story down stage. At the same time another character is sneaking in to BOP them on the head. At different times either character may take the Primary focus.
MOVING ON STAGE
When you just stand and talk, we call that talking heads. BORING! Great theater requires moving around on stage; so should Improv scenes. Discover your imaginary worlds. Make big choices about movement. Use movement to support your words and inner monologues alike.
CROSSES and COUNTER CROSSES
When you move from one position on stage to another this is called a CROSS.
When your scene partner cross stage, you might (almost always should) want to COUNTER CROSS. A counter cross allows you to maintain a balanced stage. The counter cross may keep you from upstaging yourself.
The shortest distance from point A to point B is a straight line. Often this is the strongest cross. You have a big argument to make. Maybe you are attacking another character verbally or physically.
STRONG / WEEK CROSSES
The strongest cross is a direct line downstage center. It is weaker to cross away form downstage.
While crossing directly downstage or to a character is stronger, a curved cross gives much more interesting imagery.
To perform a simple “C” cross, take a large side step upstage before crossing your destination. This allows you to basically cross stage without upstaging yourself. C crosses can be almost as strong as a direct cross but allowing a little more character in the movement.
“S” crosses are my favorite. An “S” cross is similar to a snake’s movement. Instead of a straight line we wander up and down stage as we cross. Our weaving movement can show intention. Maybe we are flirting. Perhaps we are conniving and planning. Perhaps we are sizing up a situation or character.
Experiment with movement to different parts of the stage. Walking in various patterns will enhance your characters’ intentions, moods, and emotions.
TYPES OF MOVEMENT
Go sit in the park and watch the world move. What do you see? How do people move? How do the animals move? Think about how the movement relates to the rest of the world.
When we move on stage, or goal is to recreate life. As we tell stories and create scenes, we move like our characters would in the real world. Or sometimes we move in contrast to what would be expected to affect tone and mood.
How we move is very powerful in our development of characters and stories.
WHAT EFFECTS MOVEMENT?
Think about what makes you “YOU” in this very moment.
- How old are you?
- Where are you?
- How hot/cold is it?
- How light is it?
- What are you wearing?
- What are you carrying?
- Who are you with?
- What is happening around you?
At any given moment you movement will be effected by all of the above and more. think about how you change based on your surroundings and situations.
- How you move/act at home, school, work, commuting (subway, bus, walking, biking, driving), or at play?
- How do things like light and temperature effect your movement?
- How do things like emotion and mood effect your movement?
To play a scene for real, an actor considers all of these elements and more. In Improv, we do not have the time to prepare our characters, so do your homework. In a journal start reporting how you and other move at different times of the day, in different locations, during different levels of light and temperature. Record how your clothes effect your movement. Record how your relationship to your surroundings (people and things) effects your movement. The more you observe and report via your journal, the more you will be considering your all these elements in a scene.
Experiment making some BIG CHOICES regarding movement in your scenes.
TIP: Every movement starts with a breath. In real life our breath changes as we react to our world. Conversely start every BIG CHOICE with a breath! Breathe in the emotion/thought/intent of WHY you are crossing stage. Breathe in your emotional response to the weather, other characters, situations and more.
In scenes with 3 or more players we really need to start thinking about staging. In addition to all of the above consider this, NEVER STAND IN A STRAIGHT LINE UNLESS IT IS ON PURPOSE.
Anytime three or more players stand in a line it looks unnatural, unless you are purposefully playing a scene where the characters should be in a line (Dancing, Waiting for DMV, Police line-up, etc.)
Instead consider triangles. I know, EW, GEOMETRY!
There are basically two kind of triangles on stage.
DOWNSTAGE POINT – three players stand with one player downstage and two relatively upstage. This usually throws focus to the top of the point.
UPSTAGE POINT – Two players downstage with one player upstage. This is the most common as it allows all three players to easily relate to each other.
Now as you consider all of the above components – Stage Position, Body Position, Stage Movement – consider your spontaneous direction as a series of triangles. At times two players may stand closer together, leaving the third more alone, excluded. Other times there maybe equal space between the characters. PRIMARY focus will now shift between three players. Two listeners will strongly throw focus to the third.
A director often will show the progress of conflict as a series of triangles. the shapes of the triangle changes as allegiances change. PRIMARY FOCUS shifts as various character take the power of a moment.
Experiment with triangle in three person scenes. In large groups, still think about triangles. Perhaps 2-3 maybe hanging as a single point in the triangle.
THERE IS NO WRONG IN IMPROV
Remember, all rules are meant to be broken. This is especially true in Improv. But to truly be a great artist, breaking rules on purpose, we want to know the rules so we can always find our center, if only for a moment. Rank amateurs often have the most fun in our world, right? Ignorance is bliss. A little knowledge is terrible to an artist. It makes us THINK – EW! But over time, when you employ performance and writing technique in your work, they eventually become ingrained in your soul. You react to the world naturally again, but now empowered by the tools to make your story telling and performances amazing.
GO HAVE FUN!!!