Eye contact is overrated.
It is not unimportant. It is often helpful.
But eye contact is overrated.
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.
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.
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.)
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.