Eye Contact is Overrated

Eye contact is overrated.

It is not unimportant. It is often helpful.

But eye contact is overrated.

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I had an improv class where the instructor said, half-jokingly, that whenever he asked us a question the correct answer would always be “eye contact.” And looking back over the Sunday Inteviews, more than half of the interviewees name “eye contact” as the best way to connect with a scene partner.

Part of me wonders, as I’m typing this, if I’m not making this claim because I can sometimes be terrible at eye contact and I want to justify my wandering eyeballs. But I don’t think it’s that, or not totally that.

(Aside: Like much of what I pontificate about here, this opinion doesn’t apply to brand-new improvisers. Improvisers whose “breath still smells of Similac” need to exercise every muscle they can, including those whose existence they’re unaware of: eye contact, touch, jump-and-justify, yes-and, object work, status, physical initiations, etc. etc. )

For those improvisers with a few dozen shows or a couple of years under your belt eye contact isn’t as critical to good improv as the maxim would have you believe. Why not?

1. Eye Contact Can Distract

For starters, eye contact can be distracting. As with any improv goal—such as, “I’m going to start with a strong point of view tonight!” or “I’m going to play low status tonight!”—-getting obsessed is a death blow to the show. If you concern yourself with looking directly into the eyes of your scene partner you’re doing so at the expense of your other facilities.

Nimbleness is a high aspiration in improvisation, maybe the ideal. We want to be dexterous onstage: willing, able, and eager to go wherever the scene is going, and doing so with the totality of your being–your mind, body, spirit, genitals, etc.

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Gene Kelly: Nimble Master

You should aim to be mentally and emotionally on the tips of your toes so you can move quickly and with intention.

But nimbleness requires a sort of “body soft focus.” If you get hung up on a single thing—like doing that new Boston accent you’re working on.—then other parts of your body will shut or slow down.

There’s a new study out that suggests that multitasking makes the multitasker dumb and ineffectual. It’s no different in improv. If you attempt to do one thing very well—like make eye contact—whatever else you do will be done less effectively. And if you’re anything like me, thinking too much (read: at all) in a scene is going to make the scene stuffier than it should be.

“But, Andrew,” you’re screaming at me now, “who says I have to think about eye contact!!?? Can’t I just do it without thinking?”

Yes, you can. Now stop screaming. But assuming you’re an advanced enough improviser to make regular eye contact without thinking about it then you may very well run into the second problem with this piece of improv folklore…

2. Eyes Don’t Do Anything

As a former poet, I’ve heard the line about “eyes being the windows to the soul” far too much—usually in the context of making fun of poetry. It’s a bullshit line.

Eyes don’t change. Our pupils don’t turn bright red when we’re angry. They don’t grow in size when we’re horny. And our eyes, sadly, don’t turn 180-degrees when we’re bored and want to look at our own brains.

What actually betrays our inner emotions are our eyelids and our eyebrows–along with our mouths, our breathing patterns, our posture, our gestures. The eyes themselves don’t tell us much; they’re just gooey, unchanging spheres of gooey unchangingness.

Soften your focus. Let your vision go a tad bit blurry. Expand your peripherals! Feel free to use your partner’s eyes as anchors, but don’t focus on them.

Because here’s the thing: our focus is actually very limited. As you’re reading this post try to stop on a randomly selected word and ask yourself if you can recognize, by sight alone, the four or five words to the right. Probably not. You’re lucky if you can see two or three clearly.

(Rejoice, ladies, because science people have demonstrated that women enjoy a greater field of peripheral vision than men, which is OK, because there’s only, like, five things men care to look at. Don’t despair, fellas, because we can usually see farther than women.)

And the more we focus on each other’s eyes the more confused our peripheral vision becomes, making it tougher to discern our partner’s body language or what else is happening onstage. We zoom in and everything else goes staticky.

Again, using your partner’s eyes as anchor point is fine, but don’t put your faith in that alone. Don’t mistake “eye contact” for “looking at their eyes, hard.”

Relax those goo-balls and take in the impression of them. Do a quick—very quick—calculation of what their entire being is trying to communicate. Where are they looking, and how are their shoulders positioned, and what are they doing with their hands? Add up the wholeness of the other person and you’ll know right away what’s happening with their character in that moment.

But there’s one big final reason that eye contact is overrated:

3. You’re Performing for an Audience

Gosh, this one gets lost in the shuffle a lot. We’re taught, rightly, to focus on connection with our other improvisers, but we’re not often told how important the audience is. In fact, the audience rarely gets mentioned in improv training at all. But they are the reason we’re doing this in public.

And if you’re anything like me, a full, satisfied audience feeds me. I’m like the plant from Little Shop of Horrors: “Feeeeeeeeed me, audience!” When they’re laughing or oooh-and-ahhhh’ing, or even when you just sense them leaning forward in their seats hanging on every word, my improv improves. I get even more cued in to the show/scene because the audience’s energy is sustaining me.

But when two improvisers are facing each other in the interest of making eye contact their bodies turn inward, they turn away from part of the audience. If you’ve ever watched improv from the left or right side of the audience you know what I’m talking about: you end up staring at the back of one of the improviser’s heads most of the show—and you miss their fantastic face doing fantastic things.

You wanna anger these people?

You wanna anger these people?

Highly conscious of this fact, I like turning outward, sometimes completely parallel to the front of the stage. That way the audience gets a very clear picture of my character. I’ll turn my head back to my scene partners and check in with them quickly, but then I turn back out. This positioning has the added bonus of letting the audience see you react when your partner can’t. I’m not advocating keeping secrets from your fellow improvisers, but giving the audience a quick flash of emotion before revealing it to your partner is a delightful little caprice, a little secret you momentarily share. The audience will eat that up with a spoon.

If your scene partner can see your eyes—and other accompanying cues—but the audience can’t, you may create a slightly more intimate connection with your partner, but you’ll be doing so at the expense of that portion of the audience who is staring at your backside. Cheat out, check in, then cheat out again.

(Exception: If you’re not doing improv for an audience, but just like playing make-believe with your friend, you are totally exempt from this discussion. That said, you really should perform for a crowd sometime. It’s wickedly gratifying.)

In Summation

Before you scribble out an angry email that explains in crude detail how you’d like me to make love to myself, let me be uber-clear: Eye contact is a real thing that can do real good. But it can just as easily be distracting or misunderstood. Instead of intense eye contact I prefer a widened, softened focus that allows me to grasp everything happening onstage so I can react to the whole instead of the singular.

8 Comments

  1. Aaron Saenz on July 18, 2013 at 10:04 am

    YesAndrew, I have some thoughts. They aren’t exactly a rebuttal to your points above, more of a side-buttal, but I thought I’d share them anyway. Eye contact is one of my most valuable tools while on stage. I use it to do the following:

    1) To give focus. – If everyone on stage is looking at something, the audience’s eyes will follow. If what you are looking at is each other, the audience will focus on that interaction. Many times this application of eye contact is improved by using it in intervals, and there are several short form game that teach this by combining eye contact with other cues (music, emotions, etc).

    When you face downstage, you give the audience an interesting scene picture, but you also pull focus. The driver in a car has to look at the road, the passenger can turn and face the driver. The same thing happens in improv scenes. Face the audience, or face away from your partner, and you’re looking at the road. You’re telling everyone on stage and in the audience that you’re driving the scene.

    2) To read rapidly changing facial cues. – If you watch any film with close-ups you’ll see how quickly and dramatically actors will change their facial expressions as they (re)act. When a scene partner is going full tilt you’ll miss these rapid fluctuations if you aren’t looking at them.

    Now, you’ll never be able to see everything that’s happening on stage, and sometimes a scene will play better if you (and your character) can see your partner’s face, but in general you want to see most of what your partner is expressing the same way you want to hear the majority of their lines. (A “soft focus” approach for this is probably okay, but facing downstage is clearly not as helpful.) Eye contact not only lets you read your partner, but it lets your partner read you.

    3) To get out of my head. – This phrase, along with “listening” is one of those improv adages that get tossed around as unquestionable truths of the artform. If you aren’t listening – if you’re in your head – you’re doing bad improv. Well, I actually think there are times when you need to not listen and go in your head…but those times are relatively rare.

    I’m not sure if a soft focus, a sort of general awareness of the scene, would ever be able to shock me awake and pull me into the present as much as making eye contact with someone on stage. It’s not just about seeing what the other person is doing. Your scene partner isn’t a computer screen you have to read or a wild dog that you need to be aware of, they are a human being whose emotions and actions need to hit you like a freight train. You have to feel that impact as often as you can, otherwise you’re not really performing with someone else. And you’re not really doing a live show. Oh, you could be saying words in front of people in real time, but if you’re not being emotionally struck by your partner(s) then you are simply performing a scripted work that you happen to be writing in your head while you say your lines.

    When you are in the moment you perform with a level of sincerity that touches audiences profoundly, and that pushes scenes (comedic or dramatic) towards truths that you can’t find otherwise.

    To summarize this in a slightly less pretentious fashion: eye contact isn’t just about seeing, it’s about feeling. It helps you feel what the other person is feeling, and it helps the audience know which feelings they should be feeling too. I think eye contact is an essential part of making good scenes with partners.

    …unless you’re DareDevil. Then I think you just use your radar sense and super-hearing.

    …I really want to do a scene with DareDevil, now.

    • Andrew on July 18, 2013 at 10:48 am

      Aaron,

      I really appreciate you taking the time to write such thorough side-buttal. (Though let’s never say we side-buttalled, ok?)

      Here’s my return volley:

      I don’t think “if everyone onstage is looking at something the audience’s eyes will follow” is necessarily true. And what about two-person scenes, as most are…? I think the audience looks where the heat of the scene is. I’m thinking of a show I saw just last week: In one scene, while two characters were talking about something important another character was off to the side doing some large, detailed object work (that was, sadly, unrelated to the conversation). I was watching the object work guy, and was thus not really hearing the conversation.

      But yes, in a scene with three or more people, if they’re all looking at the same place, the audience is likely to follow them. Totally agree.

      I think your point about looking downstage is accurate: You pull focus. Which is the point. Improv scenes are about taking and giving focus, and there’s nothing wrong with taking it now and then, especially when you have something to communicate clearly to the audience. I’ve done scenes with Mia in Mandinka where we were both turned out severely and managed to have a very cohesive, lucid scene with each other. I think some of it has to do with the skill/comfort level of the improviser.

      About missing facial cues: Agreed! Which is why I mention in the post that you need to soften your focus, and not to focus on the eyes so intently. You want to take in all those little moments. (Though, let’s also admit that most of us aren’t trained, or even particularly subtle, actors, and that the minor fluctuations in the face of a trained film actor aren’t happening in most improv shows.)

      Some of this depends, of course, on whom you’re playing with. Which is to say, the more often you play with someone the less closely you have to follow their every movement because you’re attuned to their tendencies, emotions, etc.. I feel comfortable softening my focus with Mia and with Ryan and with you, for example.

      Your #3 is especially interesting. Agreed, your scene partner isn’t a computer screen, but they’re also not their character. They are an improviser pretending, for a couple of minutes, to be a character, and as such you don’t need to read their soul (via their eyes). You need to understand what they want from you, what they’re trying to communicate. And the eyes are just not the end-all be-all of that interaction. In fact, I think the eyes are, compared to all the other cues our partner can give us, pretty poor indicators.

      It’s precisely because we aren’t acting from a script that we need to soften our focus. Actors with a script enjoy the time to internalize their lines, their character, their emotions, at which point the eyes become more powerful tools. But in improv, where we’re building the plane as it flies, we aren’t internalizing much of anything—we’re acting from archetypes and stereotypes. And because we have so little time we have to communicate in fairly broad strokes.

      Again, we do not disagree that eye contact is important. My argument is that it is not any MORE important than a host of other improv techniques. For example, I agree with Dan Grimm’s recent Sunday Interview answer: TOUCH! Touching an improv partner, for me, creates a level of intimacy (that the AUDIENCE can read as such) that eye contact usually can’t/doesn’t.

      We’re mostly on the same side of this issue. Though I’d rather do a scene with Cerebus the Aardvark.

  2. Aaron Saenz on July 18, 2013 at 11:07 am

    YesAndrew, I think we’re mostly on the same side of the buttal on this one. The important thing is to make contact with your scene partner. To connect with their character and with the scene at large. I think that eye contact, touching, listening, or even holding space in your head are all good techniques to make that contact. For some people I imagine that physical touch is more electric than eye contact. For others there is something amazingly primal about locking eyes. When it comes to living in the moment and being impacted, whatever sense gets you there is the sense you should go with.

    …but I’m still going to hold my ground on eye-contact and focus. Yes, sometimes audiences are distracted by other things on stage. In fact, sometimes they will look at something precisely because you AREN’T looking at it. In the end though, emotional connection and focus tend to follow where characters are looking. That’s just a part of humanity’s genetic makeup. Next time you’re with a kid, try staring at something – there’s a good chance that if they are paying attention to you they’ll then transfer that attention to what you’re looking at.

    BTW, I never meant to imply that it was bad to look downstage/away from the scene. Just that it was a choice that does pull focus, and that pulling focus in that way isn’t something you want to do all the time.

    PS: Our next scene will be DareDevil meets Cerebus. I have prophesied it.

  3. Jon Bolden on July 23, 2013 at 10:54 am

    Eye contact is often a symptom of new improvisers not listening or connecting with each other. Most of the time, when teaching or directing, I’ll tell the players to make eye contact because I don’t know how to say “you aren’t listening to each other” without it being awkward for an audience or making the improvisers feel like they are stinking it up.

  4. Justin Davis on July 23, 2013 at 10:54 am

    This is a bunch of quickfire thoughts and responses.

    I came into this article ready to agree with most of what you were going to say (I knew I wouldn’t agree with all of, because, c’mon), but then you lost me in a few key places. Recently, I did a show with Jason Vines as our new duo troupe Jastin (pronounced Jas-tin, not Jay-sten). The idea behind our troupe is to deal with duality or multiple sides. As such, we took one suggestion and did two scenes using the same opening line for each, the first aimed at being comedic and the second aimed at being more dramatic. For the first scene, I acted as a driver for a rich man who berated me and because of that, I sat with my back to him for the majority of the scene. The character choices, story development, and secret show the audience got to see that we didn’t based on us not being able to see each other while still both facing the audience (at an angle) paid off to great effect. Jason and I talked after the show about how we loved that we couldn’t see each other during the show, because it played up the relationship between the characters and allowed us to have reactions that we wouldn’t have had otherwise, which in turn comes back to the idea of duality. The second scene, however, required much more intense eye contact and physical touch as I played a father trying to console his seven-year-old son who missed his recently dead mother. We didn’t stare into each other’s eyes the whole time, because that would’ve been awkward, but when we did make eye contact, it was powerful. Like so many other things, it’s all about context and recognizing not the just the contact established but how the context can change rapidly with a minor move like suddenly looking in someone’s eyes. This context shift happened in the first scene when I suddenly turned around in my seat to look Jason’s character in the eyes, shake his hand, and introduce myself as his future son-in-law. The power dynamic had shifted and it was signaled with a look in the eyes.

    “I’m not advocating keeping secrets from your fellow improvisers, but giving the audience a quick flash of emotion before revealing it to your partner is a delightful little caprice, a little secret you momentarily share. The audience will eat that up with a spoon.”

    That’s also often referred to as mugging for the audience and regularly frowned upon. This can be used sparingly, and I’m sure I’ve done it before as have most other improvisers, but again, context matters. Not every show works with this move. In fact, most don’t. Also, there are ways to do this without standing down center stage and directly facing the audience. You want to create a good stage picture and this move can be detrimental to that. You don’t want to see the actors acting; you want to see the characters living their lives. That’s a phrase I keep coming back to as a way to quickly express my thoughts on matters like this. Each “quick flash” to the audience or down center stage outward facing stance or aside or other audience cueing move reminds the audience that they are indeed watching a show and don’t worry too much about being invested in what’s happening because you aren’t. Now, again, this is about context as asides have happened in everything from Shakespeare to Woody Allen films to Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
    “If your scene partner can see your eyes—and other accompanying cues—but the audience can’t, you may create a slightly more intimate connection with your partner, but you’ll be doing so at the expense of that portion of the audience who is staring at your backside. Cheat out, check in, then cheat out again.”
    Cheating out is good. It should be done regularly, especially with spacework or props. However, that intimate connection gained from looking at your partner is transferred to the audience. They can go from watching the show in a removed fashion to watching empathically, which even in improv specifically aimed at comedy is something you want from the audience.

    “I think the audience looks where the heat of the scene is. I’m thinking of a show I saw just last week: In one scene, while two characters were talking about something important another character was off to the side doing some large, detailed object work (that was, sadly, unrelated to the conversation). I was watching the object work guy, and was thus not really hearing the conversation.”

    What got my attention about this particular excerpt was the part in the parentheses. The best object work or relaying of an occupation in a sentence shouldn’t be the main subject of the scenes dialog. If I do a scene in a kitchen of a restaurant where other performers and I are cooking up different meals, I’m not going to talk about what I’m doing. Doing so can mean that without the activity, there is no scene. The scene should be about more than just the activity.

    I’m not sure I disagree with saying that eye contact is overrated, although I’d say that maybe the explanation of what eye contact in performing means is often glossed over. I do apparently disagree with other comments you made to explain your thesis though.

  5. Andrew on July 23, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    Jon Boy, that’s interesting. Are you saying you might … GASP! … agree with me?

  6. Andrew on July 23, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    Justin, to clarify: The scene I describe, wherein one improviser was doing detailed space work while two others were talking, wouldn’t have been improved if the space work was related to the conversation (necessarily). My point was that such a large, distracting, and INCONGRUOUS activity hurt both parts of the scene: the talking AND the space work.

    And I just flat out disagree that turning downstage and flashing some emotion is necessarily mugging. To me, mugging has more to do with overacting than where you’re facing. Obviously it’s just a single move that shouldn’t be used often or in all types of shows. But my god it can be effective at creating depth of character and theatricality.

    And I think it’s true to life. We don’t show the person we’re talking to all of our emotions. We hide some. But to hide them from your scene partner AND the audience makes it a pointless move. If nobody sees it, what’s the point? It’s more interesting (and movie-like) to show this to the audience but deny it to your partner.

  7. Look into my eyes | 29 going on slut on August 4, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    […] Eye Contact is Overrated (yesandrew.com) […]

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