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!

2 thoughts on “All About Staging: The Invisible Spotlight Effect

  1. Excellent article and fun prose. I have used a few of these methods in my demos, but you identified a few areas I can improve and focus on for my club’s next demo. Your demo was so amazing and the performers were on point. How long did it take to create that demo? I only wish I could be close enough to attend your seminar at the clinic. Thank you so much for passing on your secrets! I’m looking forward to your next installation of creating magic in demos.

    • Thanks so much for commenting Kim! And for actually endeavoring to use my ramblings. 😉

      That particular demo was in production for a year. Anytime we had a competition demo we worked all season on it. So at 3 hours a practice x 2 times a month + additional practices in the Deadly Seven, I would estimate that you were looking at roughly 80 hours worth of work on just that one demo.

      I’m a firm believer in practice makes perfect and I’m pretty sure I officially ruined Pirates of the Caribbean for everyone on the team that year. Haha! We were all so sick of the music by the end! But I think that was our best demo hands down. It was a good one to end with. Go out with a bang and all that. 🙂

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