All About Staging: The Invisible Spotlight Effect

As November looms ever closer, and with it, the annual training clinic celebrating the World Tang Soo Do Association’s birthday, I’ve started thinking about, (and stressing over), my presentation. For the past two years, I’ve been invited to present my techniques for Demo Teams. This year is the final, and hardest, segment– Storytelling. How do you teach something that really is intangible? In an effort to try and figure that out, and avoid the massive panic attack brewing in my stomach, I’ve decided to throw myself into Demo Team mode. And I’m going to bring you all with me.

For the next three weeks, we’ll cover the three basic elements that will take your performances from blah and generic, to awe-inspiring productions of awesomeness. It will be the perfect refresher course for anyone planning on attending the clinic, and for everyone else, it will be a crash-course in the finer details of Demo Teams.

Ready? Let’s get to it!

Staging

Technically, Staging is a term borrowed from Theatre. It refers to the intentional use of performance elements to control an audience’s focus. Think of it like “composition” in art– the artist intentionally lays out an image to direct the viewer’s eye to the important parts. Staging does the same thing with a demo. I dubbed it, “The Invisible Spotlight Effect,” because, when done correctly, it’s like shining a spotlight on whatever it is you’re trying to emphasize.

Why is this effect necessary? Let’s look at the alternative. Think about all the martial arts demos you’ve ever seen, or even participated in. You probably had a team of 10-20 people, all dressed in the traditional uniform for your style. For the majority of the demo, everyone stood around at the back or off to the side. Maybe they were orderly and standing at attention; maybe they were clumped like a bunch of bystanders gawking at a train-wreck. But the point is, they were standing. Meaning that, at any given point, you had maybe a handful of performers actually doing anything. Those performers would rotate with each segment, new ones would come out and do their highlighted specialty, and the previous ones joined the useless bunch at the back. Sound about right?

When you have the majority of your team standing around, you’re wasting its potential. What you create is a disjointed spectacle that does very little to hold an audience’s attention. Any audience is comprised of this: the parents and friends of the performers, who will be riveted to the action for the duration that their loved one is front and center; random people mildly interested in what’s going on, but that spend most of the performance posting snarky comments on Facebook and watching their phone’s screen; and maybe a few people interested in checking out the hot guy or girl who’s now chilling at the back fixing their uniform. Heck, even the rest of your team probably isn’t paying attention to the stage once they’re not on it! People have short attention spans and wandering eyes that increase when they get bored. This “traditional” demo style plays right into that and provides your audience with far too many distractions, ruining the chances of them remembering anything except the student off-stage who fixed a wedgie.

This is why you need Staging. It allows you to highlight the cool stuff while still keeping everyone on the floor doing something. It’s more entertaining for your audience, giving them more to look at and keeping their interest piqued; it’s more entertaining for your team, preventing anyone from having to stand around picking their nose; and it’s just more entertaining, period. Why wouldn’t you want to use it?

There are tons of ways to implement Staging, but the following are some of the more common. The terminology is completely my own, so forgive the cheese-ball names. It wasn’t until I had to start explaining it that I realized I needed some way to reference each technique. So these are only official terms in that they’ll give you an easy way to remember them. Don’t Google them. You won’t get anything. Or at least, anything helpful for Demo Teams.

Frame of Reference:

Generally speaking, a demo is choreographed so that it’s best viewed from the front. This is especially applicable if you are competing, as the judges will almost always be at the front, in the direct center of the stage. Often, a demo is performed in a community center, a school gymnasium, or random parking lot. Rarely will there be an actual “stage.” So you need some sort of guide defining the dimensions of the performance, a “Frame of Reference.”

Using this technique, you essentially create a camera effect that simulates the way people watch movies or TV. It’s a comfort zone that keeps all the pertinent information easily accessible and helps ensure your audience keeps their wandering eyeballs where you want them.

The best example I can give is this: from wherever you’re sitting, look up. Without turning your head even a little from left to right, how much of the room can you see? (If your office is like mine and your desk is stuffed into a corner, then you’re probably staring at a beautifully blank wall, so turn your chair around and try it again. ;)) This is your Frame of Reference.

Ideally, you don’t want the people with the prime seats having to work to see the action. If, sitting dead center, you can’t see the entire performance without turning your head, then you might want to condense it so that it stays within your Frame of Reference.

Levels:

One of the most difficult things to accomplish is  spotlighting a single person or technique without stopping the motion and while having all members on the floor. Levels is best way to do it. Not only does it create visual interest, but it uses height differences to emphasize a particular element.

It’s human nature to predominantly watch whatever is at eye level or higher. You can take advantage of that instinct simply by placing whatever you want to spotlight in the optimum range and dropping everything else below it.

For example, say you have a student with a really spectacular kick that you want to show off. At the same time you have them perform that kick, have all the other team members drop to the ground with a leg sweep, roll or something of the like. Instantly, you’ve spotlighted the kid with the wowing kick. Every eye in the audience will go immediately to him. But more importantly, you haven’t stopped the overall motion, resulting in a seamless, fluid presentation that’s sure to keep your audience enthralled.

Freeze-Frame:

Sometimes you want the added emphasis that having only a single person moving can bring. So if Levels isn’t quite providing enough focus, then your next choice is Freeze-Frame. Just like it sounds, the idea is that you have everyone except those you wish to highlight literally freeze for the duration of the spectacular technique. With no other motion to look at, the audience will have no choice but to watch the stunt you spotlighted.

Well, in theory. They may also choose that moment to glance around at the rest of the audience, or check their phone notifications. Which is why this is a technique best used in moderation and only for very short time periods.

Passing the Torch:

We’ve all seen the Olympic Torch passed from runner to runner before finally arriving at the designated location for that year. This technique is based on the same idea. Essentially, you use a prop to capture and direct the audience’s eye.

Let’s face it, we human beings are fascinated by stuff. Like Mockingbirds and tin foil, we just can’t help it. The second there’s a prop in play all eyes in the audience will be locked on it, no matter how inane and silly it may be. So again, you can use basic human nature to your advantage.

The simplest example is if you have the action split into two groups. You’ve set it up so that the spotlight is on the left of the stage with Group A, but you want to move it onto Group B on the complete opposite side of the stage. Have someone from Group A take the prop and walk it, (ok, not literally walk, some kind of cool combination of choreography), across the stage to Group B. Like dogs eying your burger at the dinner table, the audience’s attention will follow that prop, effectively transferring the spotlight from Group A to Group B– passing the torch.

Ripples:

Similar to Passing the Torch, Ripples move the audience’s eye across the stage when you have no props to do it for you. The idea is that you use a single piece of choreography, repeated with slightly varied timing, all the way across the stage. Like dominoes falling, each student moves just after the one before them does. They require ridiculous coordination and focus on the part of the students and should be used only if there really is no other alternative.

By far the worst, most horribly frustrating technique in the Demo Team arsenal, Ripples will single-handedly be responsible for making you bald. Especially if you have a large team. Suddenly that awesome team of 20-some-odd individuals you so proudly recruited will feel like an army of sleeping sloths. They don’t sound scary, but good god!

Probably the best example of a ripple I’ve ever seen was from Lord of the Dance. If you haven’t seen it, check out the link. And if you aren’t impressed, then go ahead, try and do better. You’ll very quickly change your mind.

Musical Emphasis:

Musical Emphasis employs the assistance of music to create emphasis on something. Reliant on the principles of Musicality, (which we will be covering later), it ties one moment of choreography to something noteworthy in the music. Humans are extremely attuned to music, whether we’re consciously paying attention to it or not. It affects us, and we naturally glean emotional content from it. Composers of film/TV/video game scores are well aware of this fact, and use it to enhance the visuals of their project. You can apply it to Demo Teams just as easily.

The trick is to select something that will be subtly noticeable by the audience. How can something be subtle and noticeable? Well, we only really pay attention to one form of information at a time. We might know there’s music in the background, but 90% of our focus is on the visuals. By marrying a dramatic point in the music to a dramatic point in the action, you instantly magnify the effect of both. Suddenly, all the information assaulting the audience’s attention meshes together into one message, heightening the overall impact. The best example would be utilizing a large drum beat/bass drop to emphasize a spectacular jump spinning kick or acrobatic display. There are other examples, but we’ll cover them next week in the Musicality section.

Organized Chaos:

There should never be complete chaos in your demo. Nothing loses an audience faster than segments that aren’t well-rehearsed and are just made up on-the-spot. I don’t care who you are, no one relays confidence and proficiency when they’re winging it. And if it doesn’t look polished, your audience won’t care. You’ll just be another freak spazzing out in a weird location and they’ll go back to texting people about the weirdo they’re quickly walking away from.

But sometimes you want that feeling of chaos to increase the tension in a battle scene. For that, I created something called Organized Chaos. Simply put, it’s a highly choreographed segment that gives the feel of a spontaneous sparring match.

At it’s best, this technique uses a combination of all the others, so even though everyone’s moving in seemingly random situations, there are still subtle hints at what the audience should be watching. But even at it’s most basic, a burst of Organized Chaos will wake up any audience member who might be thinking they’re feeling a little bored. Like a shot of adrenaline to the attention span, nothing instantly requires more focus than a flurry of activity you have to decipher.

Synchronization:

The exact opposite of Organized Chaos is Synchronization. Everyone knows what it means to be synchronized, but few know how to really apply this for maximum effectiveness. It’s great if you can create a demo that is synchronized completely from start to finish. It’s really hard to do, so kudos, you’ve racked up massive technical points.

But it’s emotionally flat.

Synchronization creates an androgynous effect, meaning that it wipes away all sense of individuality or personality from your team. Sometimes that’s what you want. For example, it’s the perfect tool to allow people to fade into the background when they aren’t in the spotlight. But most of the time, you’ll have a story that requires characters, and characters have what? Personality! So save the whole-team synchronization for dramatic moments, like the demo’s finale. Having all 20-some-odd students suddenly sync up in a beautiful and flawless section of choreography will really drive home that part of the demo. Like the crescendo of triumphant music at the end of a movie, it’s a subtle cue to the audience that the performance is coming to an end.

Formations:

A formation is a pattern the student’s perform in and is what everyone immediately thinks of when they learn about Staging. It’s like Staging for Dummies because it’s so easy to implement, so don’t expect any applause for technical effort. But it can still be quite effective if done right. Depending on how you lay out the formation, you can use it to point to something or someone important. Think of the apex of a triangle, everything would be directing the audience’s eye to the top. Or a circle– everyone watches whatever’s in the middle.

There are countless formations out there, each with their own use and impact on your staging. The thing to remember is that they are often strongest when paired with something else. Formations can rarely stand on their own. They’re a guideline for the choreography, and create visual interest, but that’s about it. To convey your story, you’ll need a lot more than just Formations. And if Formations are all you’re interested in, then why did you bother to read this massive wall of text?

I know I just handed you an awful lot of information. So before we move on to next week’s topic, Musicality, I’ll leave you with a more visual example of everything I’ve covered. Below is a video of Dragon Heart Tang Soo Do’s winning demo from the 2009 Region One Championship. The reason I’m using it is for one simple fact– it wasn’t filmed by someone from Dragon Heart. What you see is a video taken by someone in the audience who’s seeing it for the first time. So you really get to see the staging elements at work. For the most part, she watched exactly what I intended her to. Obviously, you can’t control anyone’s focus 100%, but she paid attention to the majority of the important stuff. As you watch it, see how many of the techniques I’ve listed you can spot. There are definitely quite a few. But not every demo requires the use of every technique. So don’t be afraid to stray from the list or invent your own techniques as needed. Enjoy!

What is “Flow”?

Stop the snickering and dirty jokes, I’m not talking about that type of flow. 😉

I stumbled on an interesting and rather heated discussion this week, (as most conversations involving the dissection of writing tend to be), about the use of “flow” as a literary term. The forum seemed pretty evenly divided between writers that absolutely despised it and felt it should never be used in a critique, (an argument that instantly smacked of stereotypical writer pretentiousness), and those that felt it was a valid descriptor (instantly hailed as amateurs by the snobby residents of the Anti-Flow brigade). And it got me thinking. What exactly is literary flow?

Technically, “flow” isn’t recognized as a legitimate literary term– go ahead, Google it. I did. You’ll find it’s omitted from nearly every list of valid literary terms. Yet it’s probably one of the most frequently used words when discussing someone’s work. I know I’m guilty of using it– you can find it’s offensive four letters listed among the things I look for when freelance editing. So how did it become such a firm presence in our literary vernacular if it doesn’t technically exist? And why is using it tantamount to dropping another four letter word starting with “F”?

My theory is that it’s because no one really knows what it means. Is it referring to the structure of the piece as a whole, the “flow” of the words themselves, the pacing, what? It’s this vagueness that makes feedback including it seem awfully similar to:

“I loved it!”

“This sucks. I hated it.”

While those are, I suppose, acceptable reader responses, they fail to tell the writer anything useful, namely– why? In order for any critique to actually help the author, it has to explain why the reader felt the way they did, and what they would have liked to see different or not. Telling us that our work is lame, that you think it’s utter crap, or on the flip-side, that it’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever read ever, really doesn’t help us improve or repeat the success. Telling us why you hated it, or loved it, is like feeding a starving man– it’s what we really care about. Nothing will get your opinions ignored faster than failing to quantify your experience as a reader. I believe this is why “flow” causes such a divide among writers– it gets thrown around like it’s a brilliant little gem of insight when really it’s just unhelpfully frustrating.

I don’t agree that it’s a bane to literary terms though. Actually, I think it’s a perfectly valid starting point for a critique, as long as the reviewer goes on to define it. The definition is crucial, because “flow” is one of those terms that can mean about a million different things to different people.

For me, “flow” is synonymous with “smooth.” When something flows, it should have an effortless feel that allows me to forget the words and really immerse in the story. It’s a visceral sensation of rightness that you only really notice when it’s disrupted. I tend to imagine storyline as a thread running through the center of a piece. Ideally, that thread should be smooth and straight, holding everything tightly in place. When that happens, the story “flows.” But if the thread gets crinkled up in a tangent, veering away into a knotted section of confusion, or frays into several disjointed, broken paths, the story’s flow feels off. Much like the way a river flows toward the sea, everything in the story should flow toward the final goal. This is part of why you need an editor, or critique partner, or random-person-off-the-street to read your work. Authors are usually too close to the story to be able to catch these flaws in the thread. But your readers sure will. They may not know exactly how to define it, but they’ll feel it.

I use “flow” to start a conversation about the structural integrity of a piece, but I can think of at least two other ways in which it could be defined. Let’s put that to the test, shall we? In the comments below, tell us what “flow” means to you. And please refrain from derailing this into the gutter. This is a serious, (ok, semi-serious), literary discussion, and I do have the power to decline your comments (Mwahaha!). So family-friendly only please. 😉

NaNoWriMo Anyone?

November is National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo for short, and with the 1st looming right around the corner, the online literature community is already starting to buzz with anticipation. For those of you who haven’t been acquainted with NaNoWriMo yet, here’s the breakdown:

You have 30 days to write 50,000 words.

There’s more to it than that, with community involvement, etc. but that’s pretty much the gist. Anyone interested can find out more here. I’m sure you’re sensing my ambivalent attitude by now, and you would be correct. When I first discovered its existence via the glorious lurking of literature forums, my initial response was one of fascinated curiosity. The idea of a motivational tool that forced you to write is one that instantly appealed to my procrastinating, heel-dragging laziness. But that was soon followed with trepidation at the thought of writing 50,000 words in a single month– a feat I haven’t even accomplished in 15 years of writing! And that was soon replaced with a general sense of reservation toward the whole thing.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t think it has merits. I do. So let’s look at it a little closer.

The spirit behind NaNoWriMo is one of community. It’s an encouraging place for aspiring and established authors to convene, providing structure and the ever-motivational pressure of a deadline. It’s presented as a competition, but really, there is no single winner. The idea is that if you meet the goal, (because, obviously, not everyone will), you will be inducted into their “Winner’s Page” and receive a commemorative certificate and web badge. So there’s nothing really at stake but personal glory.

The point of NaNoWriMo is simply to write. It’s supposed to teach writers how to get past their inner editor and just hammer out a rough draft as quickly as possible, with the implied intent of revising after the competition ends. It also helps those who suffer from procrastination learn to work under a schedule. (Both of which I fall squarely into.) And it does all this while supplying writers with a network of support in the form of fellow participants and writing resources. In that sense, it’s a fantastic and friendly tool to any would-be author. But there’s still that intimidating element of trying to cram 50,000 words into 30 days.

What does that actually look like? Well, it depends on your approach.

  • If you write every day from Nov. 1st – Nov. 30th, you would need to write 1666 words a day. (Ok, that’s not so scary. This post is almost that long.)
  • If you write only on the weekdays, you would need a minimum of 2272 words a day. (Hmm, a little more intimidating, but with enough coffee, probably not impossible.)
  • If you only write on the weekends, you’re looking at 6250 words a day. (Yeah, that’s a little intense. Not sure I could do that even if I spent 8 hours both days trying!)
  • And if you’re a procrastinating masochist and wait until the last minute, you’d have to write 50,000 words in less than 24 hours! (And knowing me, this would be my fate. Can we say insanity much?)

While I strongly believe in the use of deadlines as a form of motivation, they can be a double-edged sword. If you’re not a prolific writer, or you have to work a day job to, you know, eat and stuff, attempting to write 50,000 words that quickly will be a massive, panic-inducing endeavor. You’d have to throw out the idea of inspired quality and, instead, watch your word counter tick ever closer to that final goal like a bomb waiting to explode. Can you imagine what a novel written under those conditions looks like? If I did it, it would be a huge pile of stinking mess that would be beyond salvaging and would never see the light of day.

I think every writer has to find their own system. Some thrive under strict regimens of daily word count requirements, others work only when the muse bites. Some rush head-long through a rough draft and spend double that time fixing it, others edit as they go. There is no right or wrong way to be a writer. It’s all about finding what works for you. At this point in my career, I’m pretty confident in saying that NaNoWriMo won’t work for me. At the end of it, I would probably be drooling in the psychiatric ward after suffering a psychotic break.

But if you’re still looking for your method, and the thought of writing 50,000 words in a month doesn’t make your stomach clench in fear, then, by all means, sign up! Even though I view NaNoWriMo as a lesson in self-torture, doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be perfect for you. I’ll cheer you on from the sidelines. That way, I can keep my sanity intact. Well, mostly, anyway. After all, we can’t all be Hares, some of us have to be the Tortoise. 😉

Writing Mode vs. Editing Mode

There’s a lot of writing advice out there that says you have to write every day to be successful. And while I’m all for self-discipline, (although I suck at it), this strategy just doesn’t work for me. Partly because sometimes, (often, actually), my muse takes a sick day, (or fourteen), preferring to sip margaritas on a beach somewhere rather than coming to work, and sometimes, my characters stamp their feet like petulant little children and refuse to cooperate, resulting in a stalemate of blank pages. But mostly, it’s because I never know which half of me is going to roll out of bed in the morning, the writer or the editor.

I think most authors would agree that writing consists of two modes: Writing Mode and Editing Mode. Two sides to the same coin, neither exists without the other, and yet they require vastly different parts of the brain. Writing Mode is reliant on imagination, slave to inspiration and the whims of muses, and is an organic, joyous process (most of the time). Editing Mode is much more analytical in nature, coming from a place of logic and fact rather than emotion. Sounds like the age-old argument about English and Math, no? But the truly fascinating part is that, while each mode compliments the other, it is nearly impossible to utilize both at the same time. At least for me.

I am one of those perfectionist people that perennially edits as I write. I can’t just glom my thoughts onto the page in a horrific ramble of word vomit and call it good. Which, I realize, is in direct contradiction to one of the Cardinal Rules of Writing. If you remember, I already wrote about this inability to barrel headlong through a rough draft without looking back– in my rant about Perfectionism. What does this have to do with the two modes of writing? Well, it means that quite frequently, I suffer from the bipolar nature of the process and flip-flop between the two. Which is how I know that you can’t do both at the same time. At least, not fully. You can tweak little things during the creation part, but a complete overhaul-style edit will derail any hopes you had of being creative that day.

Why does it happen this way? I have no idea. My theory is that when you start to edit, the part of your brain responsible for problem solving takes over, chasing away those little fairies of creative thought much like waking up chases away dreams. Editing is like working on a puzzle, each piece carefully weighed and inspected to make sure it fits with the others. It’s not fun, (well, for most people) and it’s not glamorous. More than any other part, it feels like work. It’s one of the only times in writing when you have to conform to rules, and for a lot of people, it starts to feel like an administrative chore. You never hear anyone say they enjoy paying bills, or filing taxes, right? Well, I would hazard that there are a lot of writers out there that put editing into that same category of painful-but-necessary tasks.

Writing Mode, on the other hand, is fun, and can sometimes be glamorous, (if you’re not me and aren’t instantly and completely mortified by the drivel you just put down, amazed that anything that crappy could have come from the beautiful vision in your head).  There’s something magical in the process of creation, a freedom in the cathartic expression of emotion. And, like dreams, there really are no rules. This is the part where you’re free to wander down whatever strange, nonsensical paths your muse sees fit. There’s no worry because you know you can just fix it later. (Again, unless you’re me, and you get stuck like a broken record until you get a scene right.)

I think it’s this disconnect between the two that prevents them from being called upon simultaneously. Creativity can feel like a direct link to the subconscious, channeling beauty from places even the artist might not be able to define. Editing is too grounded in reality, too centered around order and precision to allow for that much unknown. Which leaves every author with two alter-egos, the writer and the editor. And like Jekyll and Hyde, you can’t always predict which one will show up when.

The good thing about having these two halves of the process is that when one doesn’t work, the other often does. When inspiration fades, (and let’s face it, uninspired days happen), you can still be productive. Even if editing is as painful as a root canal for you. It’s easier to do it in small chunks than one massive 15-hour surgery at the end, when you have thousands of words to mutilate and butcher. (Unless you plan to hire someone like me to hack your baby into pieces for you.)

Of course, not every writer is gifted with equal amounts of talent in each mode. Some are brilliant creatively, but horrible editors. Some are masters of grammar and actually enjoy editing, (me! me!), but find creating to be like pulling teeth. And some are lucky enough to toe the line between the two. Which are you?