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Thinking 'bout: Directing

Directing: Reading from a legal pad; shirt tucked into jeans.

"It was great. I mean, it's a blast directing underwater stuff."

--David R. Ellis

Today, I'm expanding on a concept in last week's blog post. If you haven't read that post yet, you might want to do that. Or not, but like, I gave you the link to click not just to look at it come on.

Last week, I talked about how I think that great improv happens at the convergence of three different skills of the performing arts: writing, directing, and acting. Today, I'm talking about directing, which is what the stock photographer thinks is happening in the totally-not-staged-at-all picture above.

I'm tackling directing first because it's the scariest. Fear in an improv scene can happen in writing and acting, too, but it seems to spend most of its time in directing. A director needs to know what's going on, what we're all trying to achieve, and what's important for the audience to know...or at least look like he or she knows those things.

You can't get through school without writing at least a bit. All of us have done at least a little acting in our lives- behaving differently around family than we do friends, etc. But directing-- taking on leaderships roles or making decisions despite a lot of doubt--many of us avoid whenever possible.

But, like most things in life, good directing is just a formula you can follow. Below, I'm going to offer a few basic directorial concepts that can help add a little bit of polish and theatricality to your scenes.

1. Stage Position

Do you need to memorize the terms in the chart above? Nope. But here are some general directorial truths to help you establish scenes onstage.

Enter Stage Right, Exit Stage Left

Audiences read a stage the way they read a book- from left to right. That means entrances and important events should happen to your audience's left (stage right), and weaker moments or hidden moments should happen to their right (stage left). Admittedly, many improv theaters aren't your stand proscenium theater, BIG (Baltimore Improv Group), for instance, is thrust (audience on three sides). However, this principle can still apply.

When I was directing A Christmas Carol a few years back, I had the Ghost of Christmas Present progressively age by switching out actresses. Most switches happened in scene transitions, but one had to happen mid-scene. I put Scrooge with a monologue downstage right and had the next spirit enter upstage left. People actually commented about that moment more than any other after the show because it felt like "magic." Really, all we did was command attention.

Downstage = Power, Upstage = Weakness

What appears bigger to the audience seems more important and powerful. The reverse is also true. Your character seems stronger and more dominant if they confidently move downstage. They seem timid and weak if the move upstage. Plant your feet and move forward if you're high status. Shift your weight and move backward if you're low status.

Audiences Forget the Middle...Unless...

Center stage is actually pretty weak. If there's a lot going on in the edges, we lost the action in the middle. Unless the outside throws focus.

Photo Credit: David Evans

Photo credit: David Evans

People at BIG have been sharing the photo above all over. They love it. It's a great shot, and it's a great picture. Why? Because the actors are all throwing focus.

2. Throwing Focus

Good directors understand that if you took a picture of any moment of a show, an audience should have an idea of what is happening in that moment. Here, you do, even if you don't know the specifics. Kim (center) is supported by an entourage. Jake (left, blue sweater) is clearly shocked by this. I didn't see this scene, but my guess is it's an interview situation, based on the way the chairs are positioned. Kim's the oddball, breaking the norms of interviews. Jake's the voice of reason.

This works because it's being supportive. Levels are being created on the outside which funnel our focus to Kim. Richard (plaid shirt, left) and Jason (kneeling, right) are both pushing their energy and looking inward- drawing our eye to Kim.

Stage picture matters. If you don't know how or if you can support as an actor, maybe just make a directorial choice and help throw focus to the leading lady of the current scene.

3. Say the Thing

Good direction doesn't leave the audience guessing, it guides the audience's attention and thinking. If you're watching a mystery and you get to the big twist or reveal, you want to say "oh! This makes sense!" and not "what? I was supposed to remember the mailman from the opening scene this whole time?"

Translated to improv, this means later in your set, if you're calling back the guy who thought small talk was more important than any big issue, then your initiation should say something about "small talk," "big issues," or some other catch phrase or character trait of that scene.

Don't be coy. Don't be artsy. Direct. Tell your troupe mates what to do with clear language in initiations. Guide the audience to the right conclusion by recreating stage pictures, imitating physicality, or throwing focus.


Directing isn't scary. It's a skill. Start playing with stage picture, throw focus to the person who has the "light" in your scene, and say the thing you mean to say.

So, I've been thinking 'bout directing...

...and next week I'm thinking 'bout writing!

If you're into the blog, check out my podcast with Kerri Shannon, Gettin' Biggie with It. We interview a new member of the Baltimore Improv Group every Thursday! Get it where you get your podcasts!