Soft Focus and the Art of Telling a Story

Over the past few months, I've worked with a variety of improvisers in class and performance situations and I've noticed that for a lot of them, it's very difficult to tell a story. Mind you, many improvisers aren't interested in telling stories. It's a stylistic choice; they'd prefer to work with themes or some other aspect of improv.

Transactors Improv has long prided itself on telling stories. I'm not talking about trying to "playwright," when a player or players attempts to impose a narrative on a piece. Rather, we seem to do a good job of letting larger stories evolve out of smaller scenes, characters, and themes.

The late renowned author Max Steele told me that he was so impressed that we were able to create an arc for all of our characters within the span of an hour. I wasn't aware that we had done that until I looked back and realized that all the characters had either changed or experienced crises during the course of the performance. That was pretty cool, I thought.

So, provided that telling a story is a good thing, how is it we seem to be able to do it well and some folks have a hard time doing it? What relevance might this have for people who don't do improv theater?

Well, assuming that the players have basic improvisational skills and are able to work well together, I believe the key is focus.

Soft focus is that used performers and athletes who are trying to see everything and not just one thing. Improvisers use soft focus because they need to know what's going on around them. An experienced player places her/himself where another player can see, at least peripherally, what s/he is doing. Something may be happening that the actor needs to see but that the character isn't supposed to see.

Now, when it comes to creating a story from separate scenes, soft focus means that you don't hone in on details too much. You're aware of them but you don't necessarily seize on them.

To put it another way, you try to see the forest and the trees and what I've seen a lot of improvisers do is get utterly obsessed by the trees. At the risk of stretching the metaphor past the breaking point—although there is a method to this madness—the trees are often damaged or destroyed when they could be allowed to grow and bear fruit.

One group I recently worked with created characters in the early scenes of a long form and these first glimpses of a character revealed important traits, motivations, and so on. But the players would immediately start examining these character facets to the point that they could no longer develop.

Let's say one character is revealed to be insecure early in a piece. Players need to be aware of that and generate opportunities for that insecurity to manifest itself and to change. But if that is the sole focus of the piece or the scenes in which that character appears, then nothing can develop organically. The trait is smothered by the attention and can't grow.

My recommendation would be to strive for more balance. Be aware of the character trait or the theme or what-have-you, but don't make every scene be about it. As strange as it sounds, characters and themes can develop even when they're not on stage or the primary focus because when you bring them back, context changes them.

Or, as Transactor Mike Beard so nicely stated, "The story is a mosaic; not every piece is large or brightly colored... If a scene helps to bind together the whole, it is likely a good scene even if the people in it don't have a dramatic coup within the scene."

It's like you plant seeds—tree seeds—and go work in another part of the orchard. Waiting for seeds to grow is boring, puts too much pressure on the seeds to perform, and tempts you to dig up the seeds to see how they're doing. That's no good. Leave 'em alone and focus on something else. They'll be fine. Or maybe they won't be fine but you will because you've planted other seeds that will grow.

Another tendency I've observed in some players is to try to make a joke out of a character or theme too quickly. Rather than being drowned in too much attention, an aspect of what could become a story is killed by being 'harvested' too soon.

It's tempting to get a laugh by making a joke out of a potential story component but that's shortsightedly squandering a resource. If you let it grow, it can provide more; not just laughs but also meaning, structure, and even poignancy.

So what do you do to avoid smothering your story with too much attention or killing it in its infancy by trying to turn it into a laugh too soon?

I suggest focusing on basics. Focus on individual scenes with the understanding that more seeds will be planted by the unexpected, which is what you're after in improv anyway. Focus on other characters, motivations, and themes.

Let elements of your story 'breathe.' You can always bring things back, which is good, unless you never let them go away, which might wind up being overkill. It's as though the elements of your story are your children and you can only do so much before you let them go and see what they become.

Patience seems to be a recurring theme here. Let things grow and keep that soft focus wherein you see individual elements but also the entire picture. The more you're able to do that, the more you'll find things just come together without your having to try so hard to make them fit.

And what's the relevance for those who aren't improv performers?

Well, let's say you're trying to develop a plan, product, or a solution to a problem. You'll need creativity to do that and one of the best ways to work creatively is by brainstorming. But brainstorming is challenging and one of the reasons is that people get hung up on details and obstacles at the wrong time.

Explore possibilities and best-case scenarios first. You're starting with nothing, so assuming things are possible is better than what you already have, right? Don't let the barrier take all your focus. Try to keep the big picture in view even if the details are a little hazy.

Obstacles often work themselves out if you assume feasibility or try a new approach, such as working backward from your goal rather than starting from your origin. You also invite surprising opportunities into the creative process when you take that approach.

If you're stuck in the process, try working on something else for a while. Often when we encounter difficulty in creating or problem solving, our tendency is to work harder at it, which frequently leads to generate tunnel vision. Let yourself and your obstacle 'breathe' and see if you don't see it in a different way when you return to it.

Focusing on the story—the big picture—requires patience, trust in the process, and the ability to see the overall concept as well as its individual elements and how they fit.

Fortunately, you don't need a degree in forestry to see both forest and trees.

-Greg Hohn, Director