A long, long, looong time ago I played baseball.  Yes, I played poorly, but there was a skill building exercise that I always loved. We called it “hot potato.”  Several players stood shoulder to shoulder in a tight circle and tossed a baseball very quickly back and forth around the circle.  I liked this exercise.  Granted, it was probably because I was better at this skill than connecting a bat to a ball, but also I think I loved watching everyone focused and working together on a single point of focus.
Focus is important.  If you produce an FX you already know this.  (If you’re planning on coming to the Orange Conference 2013 wait until you see what we’re planning for you there!)
On stage the word “focus” simply means controlling where an audience puts their attention.  When we watch a film, the decision has already been made for you.  The editor or director has decided you should see and hear.  In a live performance venue the audience has a bit more choice in the matter.
Fortunately you have three elements you can use to help an audience understand what is important.
Sound – you look at what’s making the most noise.
Light – you notice the brightest and lightest object in the room – like the exit signs in a darkened movie theatre.
Movement – eyes are drawn to things that are moving.
It follows that silence, darkness, and stillness will cause eyes and ears to go somewhere else.
When you are staging a segment of an FX make sure you give some thought to the important stage pictures you want noticed. Performers onstage are like baseball players playing “hot potato.”  They need to focus on the right object, and be able to change in an instant from taking to giving focus.  The more bodies onstage, the more challenging this task can become.
One exercise that may help your team develop this skill is to play a game called “two tables.”  Set up two areas onstage in rehearsal.  Divide your cast into two teams.  You can set up the scenario – maybe they’re at a restaurant.  One team is celebrating a birthday, and the other is having a business meeting.  Both teams need to remain completely involved in the scene, but the director calls out which team should take focus.  The other team gives focus.  Take some time to let the teams fully comprehend how they can move the focus as a team by using their voices and bodies.  Practice moving focus gradually, then more quickly.  Help them to understand how they are attracting eyes or helping the focus to move somewhere else.   It’s important that each team understands they should remain completely involved in the continuing scene even while giving and taking focus.   It won’t take long before your performers understand how to accomplish this even more effectively, and you understand how to help them .
Rehearsing the skill of moving a live audience’s eyes and ears around the stage takes time, but it’s well worth the benefits for your storytelling.