I heard a piece on NPR about the classical guitar duo the Assad Brothers. The piece talked about their unique bond and the significance of how they play together. It got me thinkin' about improvising with our partners.
Yo-Yo Ma said that when he played with them it felt like inserting himself into an already complete relationship. To further his point he stated that they don't even look at each other when they play. They were described like this, "It's like two bodies share the same musical mind."
What's so unique about this is how unbelievably rare it is for musicians who are playing together to not look at each other. It's how musicians have to play in order to see what the other is doing and to pick up on where their partners are going musically so they can play appropriately and when needed.
Getting on the same page by looking at each other is true for improv as well. There are those improvisers who get such strong group mind that they don't have to look at each other much to pick up on what the other is doing. It is possible in improv...but fairly rare at Assad Brothers level. At any rate it takes years and years to get there with a scene partner, so don't think you can cut any corners.
It's highly important that you look at your scene partners, and with good reason.
Reasons to Look at Your Scene Partner:
1. To Hear What They are Saying
If you don't know what a person is saying it will be really hard to respond appropriately. Musicians play well together because they heard each other. If they aren't listening to each other they can't be in the same key or on the same time. They can easily get in each others way. They know when to solo and how to accompany the soloist because they are listening. To put that in improv terms, musicians not listening to each other is that thing in improv when players talk over each other or miss that someone called them, "Grandma" and instead they played the mailman. Disconnection does not help, hearing your scene partners connects you. You have to listen intently.
2. To Hear How They are Saying What they are Saying
Tone says a lot about what your scene partner intends to convey. Someone could say, "I love you, too," but in the most sarcastic tone. That tone makes the comment so much different than it would mean if you took the words themselves at face value. You're always looking for the dynamic or meaning behind comments and actions because that's truly what the scene is about.
3. To See What They are Doing
Connecting with someone doesn't only happen with words. Imagine if your scene partner is swinging a baseball bat like they are hitting a baseball. Now imagine if the other half of that scene picture was you welding. Sure, it might get a cheap laugh, but you and your scene partner are disconnected and would have a harder time moving the scene forward. Physically connecting to what your partner is doing helps create the world you're trying to build together. It also helps create a scene picture the audience can follow.
4. To See How they are Doing It
Just like with knowing tone, knowing how your partner is doing something can go a long way in helping you know what this scene is about. Your partner's character might be helping you paint, but the way they are doing it could convey they are bored or tired or mad. That means a lot to what the scene is about. Not picking up on that might mean not picking up on what your scene partner is doing and therefore, you'd be missing the scene.
Paying attention to these things by looking at your partner helps you be a "raving paranoid," as Del Close would say. It helps you pick up on and know everything your partner is doing.
The audience is seeing these things because their one job is to watch what is happening on stage. You don't want to be a step behind the audience, you want to be a step ahead of them.
Of course, the players have to be deliberate for this to matter. Meaningless actions and words on stage help no one. If I merely look like I'm painting with your character like I'm tired but don't realize it myself then I'm not paying enough attention to myself.
Let's agree that to do improv as it's intended we have to pay attention to but each other and ourselves.