Eye contact. It’s scary with loved ones. It’s impossibly scary with strangers. It’s imperative for improvisors.
I remember the first day I was introduced to the work of Marina Abramović. I was a university student taking a survey course of 20th century art. As a woman of Slavic decent, with a flair for the dramatic, who also loved walking for long periods of time, I felt we had a lot in common. I was shocked by the brutality and gore of her Rhythm series, and moved by the romantic qualities of her work with her lover-collaborator Ulay.
Abramović’s art is definitely not for everyone. She’s violent, and inward-gazing, and what some people say is the problem with the contemporary art world. But for me, she is a woman who lives in a world defined by her personal mythology, and values being in the moment above all else. I think my favourite work is 1977’s, Breathing In Breathing Out, when her Ulay, shoved tampons up their noses, locked mouths and breathed in each other’s air until one of them asphyxiated.
So what does this wild stuff have to do with improv? Besides the fact that some of her performances are pretty funny, there are plenty of other parallels. Abramović speaks about the importance of risk taking, failure, and process over product, but more than anything Abramović, to me, embodies to me what it means to be in the moment.
You’re probably familiar with her 2010 work The Artist is Present. Clips of it were circulating around Facebook, and it ran at the MoMA for 3 months. In this work, we see the transformational affect that eye contact can have.
When we relax, let go of our social masks (smiling, cracking jokes, aka. the ticks we have that keep us safe), and breathe, there is so much there.
I recently had students start scenes this way. With only eye contact, breath and physical proximity as a starting point, once students really connected through the gaze, they started to feel genuine emotion, and connect feelings to implied relationships with their scene partner.
“I felt like we were going to fight.”
“I know I disappointed him.”
“With every breath the relationship changed.”
All this information, from just seeing and being seen. By the time class was over, everyone in the room had glassy, shiny eyes. We were all more emotionally engaged than when we’d arrived.
When in doubt, breathe, and look at your partner. Trust that the rest is already there. So much of improv is about building up structure, but there is value in simplifying too, in stripping away.
As Abramović says, “In the gaze… everything happens.”
Photograph of Hip.Bang! by Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/