The Attention Game

The art form of improvised performance can sometimes feel like walking a tightrope between seeing and being seen, hearing and being heard, getting attention and giving attention. When I get out of balance I start to wobble. I start to shake. Sometimes I fall.

I get this wobble sometimes when I’ve done a well-received thing. I exhale. Can I rest now? I’ve proved my worth, demonstrated my mustard, exhibited my toucan. The job is done.

I even experienced it with this blog. Lots of lovely people gave me positive feedback and I thought, Huzzah! I can do it. I’ve got something to say and people are listening. How amazing! I wasn’t expecting that. And then I froze up and thought, what the earth am I going to say next?

…Oh my goodness; I have to keep going! But how?

A while back, in a showcase, I even got out of balance mid-improv. It was a tag-out song and as soon as I was tagged out, I stood on the side watching the play. I’d set up something fun for my teammates. I then found myself resolving, ‘Well, that’s that sorted,’ and settling onto my back foot, metaphorically dusting my hands off and resting on my laurels.

I learned the tag-out song technique in a class on Game of the Song from the incredible Heather Urquhart and Joe Samuel. In the exercise, two people start on stage. They begin the scene. In the wings waiting are the rest of the team. When a player-in-waiting notices something interesting, they run in, tag someone out, slot themselves in as the same character and heighten that thing.

It’s fast. It’s frenzied. It’s very fun.

While leaning into my back foot I watched the action fly. I knew there was a beat I should have taken. I felt it open up. It was my moment to head in again but I found my feet didn’t move. I was resting against the wall.

What was I doing this for? I was missing out. I was denying myself the fun of getting in there because I didn’t want to mess up having made a half-decent start; I was worrying more about how I was being received than where the fun was at.

When the next opportune moment rolled around I couldn’t let it pass me by again so I pushed my feet forward.

Was what I did any good? I’ve really no idea. Had I been giving my full attention or worrying about messing up? I’d been worrying about messing up.

A tag-out song should be a brilliant exercise in giving attention. It dawned on me, I was prioritising the attention I was receiving as opposed to the attention I was giving. And that doesn’t make for maximising fun times.

Afterward, people in the audience said our tag song did look super fun. One person even said they’d decided to try musical improv now from watching how fun we made it look. This meant a lot to me – yum, validation. I was part of a team but only I knew the secret that I’d held myself back and this made me feel like a fraud.

“When we keep trying to get attention and that gets out of balance we cut off our own oxygen supply inwardly.”

Mark Nepo

Mark Nepo talks about the difference between getting attention and giving attention on Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast – Magic Lessons. He gives advice to a poet who has failed to get onto an MFA program and is wondering whether to give up entirely on this thing she loves doing. Nepo says that it is the giving of our attention that must drive us. He suggests that instead of asking from where we are getting attention, we need to instead ask: what am I giving attention to?

As well as exploring our motives behind why we improvise, I think this question can be a beautiful one for scene work. In an improv scene, it can be really easy to get caught up in worrying about what you are bringing, what you are doing, and for what you are getting noticed. But if we flip it and look instead at what we are giving attention to, we can serve the scene better. If we ask what is my character noticing? What are they looking at? What do they care about in relation to what is coming up? If we focus instead on where we are giving attention we can create something deeper. What are we noticing about what our scene partner is doing? What subtleties are we picking up on? What is the sub-text? What is going unsaid?

What are we giving our attention to? And why does it matter to us?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt gave a TED talk where he spoke about how craving attention stifles his creativity. He explores how when he is acting he is totally focused on the scene. He recognises this is needed for his craft. He has also noticed that through many repetitions he’s developed a pattern that enhances his skill. When action is called, he enters a trance-like state of creative flow. I think many improvisers can probably identify with this. I experienced it recently in a show. It felt like my creative brain took over and left me for dust. Afterward, my memory of the show was a blur. What I could remember was in a jumbled order. It was like a montage of snapshots in my head. The area of the brain forming long-term memories was probably taking a back seat.

The show went extremely well but beforehand I’d been apprehensive. It was a new show and we hadn’t improvised in front of a live audience for a long time due to the pandemic. I had no idea by that point whether we would be funny or interesting to real people sitting out there in rows waiting to be entertained. Because of my fear of not being funny enough – about what attention I might get on stage – I found myself hoping the other acts might be a bit less funny. I really liked the other people. I wanted them to succeed but I also had a voice in me that was there because I was performing later, and I didn’t want the competition to be too high in case I didn’t do a ‘good improv’. I wanted others to succeed as long as I did. And we don’t get to make that deal in improv. Or in life.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt also talks about how if he looks at his fellow actors as his competition for attention he misses out on ways to collaborate. Sometimes we see improvisers getting on stage with a competitive vibe. They’re looking for ways to ‘win’ at improv. Sometimes we are those improvisers. If I walk into a scene with the aim of ‘winning’ at improv at the expense of a scene partner, I know something isn’t right. I have to give some attention to why that is happening and what to do about it. The competitive voice is not the voice I want to listen to. I want to be thinking: who here do I want to give attention to? Who here do I want to create with?

I was working with a group where I never really got the feeling I was doing anything half-decent. I kept trying. I’d bring in exercises I’d learned in classes or that had brought me tremendous joy with other people. They didn’t zing. I couldn’t work out what I was doing wrong. I kept trying. I then was prompted by a friend to think less about whether or not that group thought I was any good but whether I was enjoying the improv. I realised I wasn’t. I realised whenever the opportunity to work with the group came around I wanted to find an excuse. I rarely ever feel this reluctance to improvise. It made me realise I’d been so focused on what they thought of my improv, I had neglected to notice what I felt about theirs. I realised I didn’t fit in with the style the group was aiming for and I needed to opt-out of working with them.

Giving my attention to what was really going on allowed me to see what I needed to do clearly. This was compounded to me in a scene where I felt disconnected but was getting lots of laughs. My scene partner was playing an authoritarian character and was closed off emotionally. Despite the laughs I was getting, my character suddenly said, “I just want to go home.” This is what we refer to sometimes as ‘the improviser talking‘ as opposed to the character. I know I can get laughs from riding tension but the attention I was receiving from the on-lookers wasn’t enough in this instance to mask how I felt. I knew something wasn’t working.

It is fun sometimes to get attention for being a bold character or a show-off but I want to give my attention to the emotional core of a scene and to do that I have to connect. I can make people laugh; I can get attention, but making the audience feel something for my characters is important to me. I feel I owe my characters that much. I’m giving them a moment in the spotlights. The least I can do is make it matter. The least I can do is give attention to my characters.

That may seem a somewhat abstract premise. However, if you think of your characters as real people, it may make more sense. I was once endowed with being a pompous bishop in an improvised Dickens show. It threw me because Dickens doesn’t write a lot about religion so I got stuck in my head thinking the audience would think it unauthentic. I was aware people were finding my character funny but I hated the character and refused to give him my attention. In the middle of the show, I had to deliver a kind of mantra for the character. I had no real idea about what the bishop’s voice even sounded like by that point so I opened my mouth and a completely different voice popped out. I felt really stupid – what must the audience have thought? I was so embarrassed I disconnected from the character entirely, refusing to bring him back on stage again. I was much more caught up in worrying about the attention I was getting, than giving my attention to the core of the character and his interactions with my fellow players. I could have found his humanity if I’d just been looking for it but I was focusing elsewhere. I was focusing on myself. And metaphorically, I wasn’t even there!

We are living in a world where we are increasingly encouraged to focus on the attention we are (or aren’t) getting and to feel shame surrounding that. Shame sells. As Joseph Gordon-Levitt discusses in his talk for TED, social media is training its users to crave getting attention. Attention is their commodity. They have to train their users to want it and to give it freely and, of course, in ever-increasing quantities. Most of us use social media. Most of us are part of this trade. This can worm its way into our psyches even away from the screen. We are being trained to need attention but do we ever feel truly seen?

If we go through life focused on where we are getting attention we can veer off our track. We can get caught up chasing the things that do not interest us, the things we do not love: the people, the jobs, the careers, the hobbies, the communities. We can end up being bounced about by what drives others, without stopping to ask: what drives me? About what am I passionate? To what do I most want to give my attention?

What I’ve come to realise is that when I give attention without getting anything back, I become resentful. But when I get it and do not give, I feel a fraud. At the very least I miss things. At the worst it can kill my creativity.

It’s easy to think when you do something half-decent, you don’t have to step forward again. It’s easy to think if you’re not receiving attention for something you love doing, it is time to give up. But to balance on the tightrope, we need to honour what we are choosing to give our attention to. So if you are resting with your back against the wall, try asking not what attention you are getting; ask instead what you are giving your attention to. That’s where your real-life lies. Regardless of whether anyone is watching.

…So get back in there and give it all you got!

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