Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

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Controlling Focus

By Bruce "Charlie" Johnson

You need to direct the audience's attention to essential elements in your act. We'll look at tools that can help maximize "focus": gesture, eye contact, color, contrast, height, placement, movement, sound, pauses, lighting...

In Harry Blackstone's barnyard act, he produced a number of ducks that were shooed into a small house. An assistant chased a lose duck across the stage. Then the house was dismantled, revealing the ducks were gone. Where did they go? While everyone was watching the duck chase, another assistant simply walked off stage carrying the ducks from the house. Nobody saw them because they were looking elsewhere. A perfect use of focus control.

In a doctor clown skit, a "doctor" clown and a "nurse" clown argued over where the "patient" should sit. During the argument, another clown picked up a gin bottle, tipped it to his ear, and water streamed out of his mouth (he'd held the water in his mouth since he entered). Nobody laughed because they didn't see what he did. They were watching the "doctor" and "nurse." That was a poor use of focus.

Focus is directing the attention of your audience where you want it, as well as away from where you don't want it.

POINTING

The simplest way to direct focus is by pointing to something.

In the 118th Edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the clowns did a firehouse gag at one end of the arena. The next act, a skywheel, was at the opposite end. Shifting focus across that wide space was a challenge the show handled with elegant simplicity.

Before the clowns lost the audience's attention, Kenny Ahern, one of the clowns, stepped away from the others achieving focus for himself. Then, with a dramatic sweep of his arm, he pointed to the opposite end of the arena. The spotlights raced to that end, and the entire audience at one moment saw the skywheel going around with two tigers inside and two men on its outside. It was a very dramatic moment that elicited an audible gasp from the audience. The element of collective surprise would have been lessened without the clown's grand pointing gesture.

EYES & (MIS)DIRECTION

You can point with your eyes. The audience will look where you look. In a group skit, if all the clowns look at one character or at one particular spot, the audience will look there too. If a character enters wearing a comedy costume (for example, a "nurse" clown with padded bosom and derriere), you can enhance audience reaction by having all the clowns look at the point of entry just before the character arrives. The audience will see the character as soon as he or she enters, and they will react at once. This simultaneous reaction reinforces each individual's response so it has greater impact than if it builds gradually and tapers off. In an intimate setting you can look with just your eyes, but with a large audience you also need to turn your head towards what you're looking at. In sleight of hand magic, if you look where the object is supposed to be, your audience will look there instead of where it really is. If you use a sleight like the "French Drop" to seemingly put a coin in your left hand (while actually retaining it in your right hand), keep your eyes on your left hand and make a throwing motion. Follow the flight of the imaginary coin with your eyes. Some members of your audience will think they was the coin fly into the air and vanish.

If you look into their eyes at the crucial moment in a trick, people will tend to meet your eyes instead of watching your hands.

CONTRAST & COLOR

Any contrast attracts attention.

Color, for example, can be used to control focus. If all the characters are wearing bright, multicolored costumes, but one wears a solid white, the audience will tend to watch the person in the white. (The exception is if the background is solid white.)

If your costume uses EQUAL amounts of different colors, none of them will take focus. If your costume is completely constructed of patterned fabrics, the patterns will cancel each other out. Solid color accents, however, will establish contrast. Burlesque comics, for example, would apply solid color lapels to their plaid jackets. Conversely, a solid colored costume could have patterned accents for contrast.

Small areas of many different colors blend into a gray image. A predominate color accented with smaller amounts of a contrasting color will create a better impression. "Frame" your clown face with a color that contrasts with your predominate costume color. This will direct attention to your face. An example would be a red wig and a red bow tie worn with a yellow costume. Small accents such as red buttons and red socks would help tie the costume together.

Color contrast on your props can also help control focus. For example, there are many juggling tricks where one ball does something different from the others. If each ball is a different color, none receive focus. If two of the balls match and the third is a contrasting color, the odd colored ball pulls focus. What you do with it will be more obvious.

Another color consideration is that stage lighting is designed to flatter flesh tones. It tends to accent red colors and leave green shades dull. A red object definitely draws focus on stage.

MOVEMENT

Movement is a fundamental tool in directing focus. If all the characters except one are still, the audience will watch the moving one. It is important for clowns to learn to be still so the audience sees what is important.

Contrasting speed is also useful. In the thirties, the prevailing circus clown movement was very fast. Emmett Kelly attracted attention to himself by deliberately moving slowly.

Broad, large movements takes precedence over small ones. Magicians wanting to hide a movement of their fingers often make a sweeping movement with their arm. The audience will watch the arm moving and, consequently, not notice the fingers.

Vertical movement pulls focus. A juggler in an atmosphere setting can attract attention by using high throws. Sometimes circus clowns carry a box of popcorn when they are going to take a fall. As they go down, they throw the popcorn into the air. Everyone watches the popcorn which permits the clown to perform a more safely controlled drop without being noticed.

HEIGHT & TABLEAUS

Height attracts attention. The tallest clown in a group tends to draw focus. A clown standing on a prop will draw focus. If all the clowns except one are seated, the standing clown will draw focus. In the minstrel shows, all the entertainers would sit in a semicircle, but those playing an important role would rise. (The converse is true, especially in a photo. If all clowns are standing except for one sitting in the front, the seated clown may draw focus by contrast.)

When I was with the Carson & Barnes Five Ring Circus, a new handbalancing act was added to a display of balancing and contortion acts. The new act was put in center ring, not because it was the best, but because they performed on the highest pedestal and would draw more attention.

Height can also help create tableaus that direct attention. If clowns are in a line in order of descending height, they from an arrow pointing to something. The effect is greater if one clown is standing, one seated, one kneeling, and one on their hands and knees.

In a tableau, if all the clowns except one are grouped together, the isolated clown tends to draw focus. If the the other clowns are looking at him, focus is guaranteed. If the other clowns do something to draw focus, and the isolated clown stays relatively still, they will become forgotten. If they suddenly move, they will immediately draw focus back to themselves. Any kind of change will attract attention.

In tableaus, the characters on the ends of lines attract the most attention. In minstrel shows, the two performers seated on the ends played important roles, telling jokes and conducting dialogues. They didn't have to stand to gain focus. Another important character, the interlocutor, was seated in the center. The central position in a tableau is also a strong one. If everyone turns toward the middle, this character becomes the center of attention.

AUDIENCE PROXIMITY

Generally, the character closest to the audience will draw focus if they are FACING the audience. By being closer, they seem larger. It is a convention that a character speaking to the audience in an aside will move forward first to get attention. If the other characters freeze, the speaker will have complete focus.

A character near the audience, but looking AWAY, will loose focus. During a conversation, if a character moves upstage (away from the audience), the other character must turn away from the audience to continue interacting. The upstage character will receive the focus. To maintain equal focus, the downstage character must shift position to remain on the same stage level. In the theatre, this is known as COUNTERING. (A good beginning acting class can help you learn how to do that.) Generally in variety arts, you don't turn your back to the audience unless you have a strong reason for doing so. Any moves upstage are done by backing up.

SOUND

Sound will attract attention. Loud noises are often used by circus clowns for that purpose. On stage, a sudden shout will draw focus, but only if the audience can tell where it is coming from. A clown making an entrance from the back of the house, the seating area, must make some kind of noise to attract attention from the stage. A magician vanishing from stage and reappearing in the audience will use noise to let the audience know where they are. For his 1990 TV special, David Copperfield reappeared in the audience straddling a motorcycle and revving the motor.  The sound made people sitting in rows in front of the motorcycle turn around to look at David.

Sound is not a perfect means of attracting focus. It isn't always possible to tell where sound is coming from. Sound systems can make it worse. Here's an example to show you what I mean. Amusement parks often use performers to provide pre-show entertainment. At one park, the pre-show was performed by a roller skating car hop entering from the back of the audience and trying to find a customer who had ordered some food. She spoke into a wireless mike so her voice came out of the speakers. It was easy to hear that somebody was talking, but almost impossible to locate her. Audience members kept searching for her on stage because they associate amplified voices with being on stage.

Another aid used by circus clowns to gain focus is a flash pot that creates a bright light or puff of smoke. Some flash pots go off with a loud bang while others are relatively quiet. Part of the effectiveness of a flash pot is that the smoke remains hanging in the air, providing visual proof of the source of sound.

An unexpected bang can startle and annoy audience members. They should be used judiciously. Safety precautions always have to be followed. (Terry DaVolt wears a hearing aid today because of hearing loss he attributes to using pyrotechnics without ear protection while he was with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He urges all clowns using flashpots or other explosive devices to use ear plugs or other sound protection.)

PAUSES & CLIMAXES

Directing where you want the audience to look isn't the only purpose of focus. It can also be used to tell them when to pay attention to an approaching climax. You want to make sure they won't miss what is going to happen. A pause creates anticipation. For example, a magician vanishing a bird cage will carry the draped cage forward to the audience, pause, and stay absolutely still for a second before throwing the drape high to reveal the cage has vanished. Attention is focused on the moment the drape is thrown, fixing it even more firmly in the audience's mind as the actual moment the vanish takes place. (On the other hand, learn to do your sleights and secret moves smoothly. If you unconsciously pause in preparation for doing a sleight, unwanted attention will be directed to the moment that you do it.)

Background music suddenly going silent will also focus attention on the moment. Another traditional way to announce an approaching climax is with a drum roll.

In Blackstone's barnyard act, the ducks where gone long before the audience realized it, and way before Blackstone made the audience think he was vanishing them. No matter when the mechanics of the trick take place, you want to focus the audience's attention on a specific moment when the "magic" seems to happen. It becomes more mystifying because their mind locks on that moment making it harder to think back to what actually happened. It also makes it seem more magical and under more of your control. Magicians will often use a shout, a flash pot, a pistol shot, a magic word or phrase, or some device (like a magic wand!) to mark the "magic" moment.

In my close-up magic act, I use a snap of my fingers. Once kids understand that convention, they sometimes ask if they can snap their fingers. I do the effect cured to their snap, and they feel that they are making the magic happen themselves. Sometimes an audience member challenges me to repeat a trick without snapping my fingers. They come to believe it is the snap that makes it work.

Another way to create an anticipation of climax is to attempt something twice, and then succeed on the third try, or to toss something into the air twice and then make it vanish on the third throw.

It isn't just magicians who draw attention just before the climax of their routine. Comedians telling a joke pause just before the punchline to make sure everyone is paying attention. A joke doesn't work if the audience misses the punchline!

Jugglers will also focus attention on their finishing trick by notifying the audience that it is "time to be impressed and almost time to applaud." Often the finishing trick will be a high one such as juggling on a unicycle or on a rola-bola on a table, or something equally dramatic. Anything that contrasts with what has gone before. An effective way to draw attention to a finishing trick is to make a slashing gesture that cues the background music to silence. The finish routine should be short so it doesn't lose its focus. Once you've gotten the audience's attention don't let it wander by taking too long. Hopefully the audience will start applauding during your last trick. You don't want them to stop before you finish. The ideal is to get them to start applauding and then finish to take your bow to swelling applause.

LIGHTING

A dramatic change in lighting (brighter, dimmer with a follow spot, a different color, etc.) can highlight a climax.

If an entertainer thinks they have a particularly strong finish, such as a striking pose or a dramatic revelation, they might "freeze", the lights go out, and they make their exit in the darkness leaving the audience with a sharp final image.

A follow spotlight is the most effective way to direct focus with light. (Jugglers should practice with spotlights before using them in performance.) If lighting levels in different areas can be controlled independently, it can be even more effective in shifting focus across a stage.

Even if lighting levels can't be controlled, there are brighter areas on stage where pools from different lamps overlap. At a Laugh-Makers Conference, during a tech session for an evening show, Debbie O'Carroll walked across the stage looking for the brightest area. She could tell where they were by the temperature differences on her face. When she found them, she marked them with masking tape on the floor. She stood on the tape to perform the important action in her mime pieces.

When you work outdoors you'll discover a variety of shadow conditions. Seek lighter areas to attract attention.

A FEW MORE COMMENTS

I've discusses several methods for controlling focus separately, but they actually function in combination. You can cause confusion by unconsciously directing attention to more than one place. Combine as many methods as possible to force the focus where you want it.

Some elements of focus control may seem obvious, which is a problem. People don't think about them, but you have to consciously use them.

In your act you need to decide what is important for the audience to see, hear, and understand. Then you direct their attention to that. A clown who is always mugging and attracting attention to themselves during a group skit isn't helping themselves or the act. The clown who does things in a way that they aren't noticed doesn't help either. Learn how to give and take focus and how to transfer it to where it is needed. Then you will get maximum response to your performance.

Copyright 2001 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson.  All rights reserved.

 

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