That one word, focus, means so many things to those of us in the entertainment industry. It could apply to a camera lens (the gate), a spotlight, a level of concentration or being the centre of attention. For our purposes, let’s consider the latter.
Focus, to an improviser, means everyone is paying attention to one thing and one thing only. It could be a person, an object, an atmosphere (as set by the lights) or a sound, even if only for a split second. You are in a scene where you and your scene partner are on the lam when suddenly the stage is flooded with red and blue lights. Did that get your attention? Then focus shifted.
There are only two ways focus shifts. The first is to surrender it to someone. Some folks prefer to say you offer it but since the word ‘offer’ already has a significant meaning in improv, I like the term surrender. To surrender focus is to either give it away voluntarily by acknowledging another improviser has something new to offer to the scene (see, the word in action) or because it was stolen and you resigned yourself to the fact that you lost it.
Which leads us to the second way focus shifts; it is taken. It was surrendered to you and you accepted it or, again, you stole it. Stealing focus need not be a bad thing. BANG! Did that get your attention? Then the sound stole focus.
And the two MUST always work together. Scenes fail when someone surrenders focus but no one accepts it OR a second improviser steals it but the first refuses to give it up. Often, that’s when the scene becomes confused and irritating.
Ideas grow strongest if they are diverse. Everyone should contribute, everyone should play. If you wanted to do it alone, you’d be doing a one man show … or stand up (wait, did I just diss myself here???).
As improvisers, it’s important to know who has focus and who wants it. We do this by listening, not just with our ears, mind you, but with all our senses (okay, maybe not smell unless you can detect that whiff of fear in a rookie). If it is true that our function on stage is to make our scene partners look good, then sharing focus is the primary method by which we accomplish this.
And how do we share focus? By holding on to it until someone is willing to accept it, then surrendering it graciously. This seems obvious, I know, and yet so many improvisers insist on retaining focus longer then they should.
But what if they didn’t know anyone else wanted it? Then why is everyone else on stage? Pay attention, your fellow improvisers will cue you. Of course, they can always steal focus, which is the most obvious cue of all. If they do, surrender it graciously. Don’t worry, you’ll get it back and when you do, the scene will be that much richer, with so much more in it to work with.
Peter Cianfarani is both shiftless and without marketable skills. He is usually brought on board a project where results are not important. Given this, he isn’t even qualified to work as a Stand Up and/or Improviser but somehow managed to become the Chief Coordinator for the Improv Alliance (a group of Ontario improv troupes including Durham Improv, Georgetown Little Improv Company, Hamilton’s Staircase Improv, McMaster University’s Improv Team, Oakville Improv Theatre Company, Orangeville Improv, Peterborough Academy Of Performing Arts, Toronto’s Centre for Indigenous Theatre and York Region’s Triptych Lounge Comedy Improv, to which he is also the Artistc Director), a founding member of the Dog’s Hind Leg and the co-creator of ‘The Ladder’ improv competition. Now who says you can’t achieve mediocrity without trying?