Look at me.
No glance. She’s notoriously defiant. I wait.
Look at me.
She continues ignoring me, eyes fixated on the world around her.
Scout, look at me.
She gazes up and begins to lick my nose.
Training a Border Collie/Jack-Russell Terrier mix is no small endeavor. She’s fiercely intelligent, snarky, playful, and protective. Her attention is rapt if there’s a squirrel, a cat, or an unfamiliar noise. She loves interaction, to communicate back her preferences, learning tricks, earning treats, and the intellectual stimulation that comes from our ongoing dialogue together.
“Look at me” is the foundation of all her other tricks. If we aren’t looking at each other, how can we communicate anything? If she’s focused elsewhere, she’s not listening, and no messages sent across our interpersonal infrastructure will be received.
In upper levels of improv classes, we begin to learn how to think together, practicing groupmind to find and create the fun on stage together with subtle messaging along the way. Clearing out all other thoughts and distractions, we learn to tune in and pay attention; the higher the attunement the deeper the levels of communication. The higher the attunement the more fun I think it is to be an audience member, watching improvisers effectively communicate the game back and forth without ever actually saying out loud what they’re doing. I’ve watched Manick do a masterful job at this: one slip of the tongue becomes a playful sub-game throughout their monoscene.
As we find answers in our partner’s eyes, we also find connection to one another through the simple act of eye contact. Not only do we know if someone is paying attention to us when they give us their full and undivided gaze, but we can hear each other much better. We can hear what is being said, and also what isn’t being said. We can hear tone, mood, and underlying messages. Through eye contact, we’re more likely to remember details about the other person, about the interaction, and also to be more inclined to altruistic actions. We begin to learn how to care better for ourselves and each other. We can empathize, sympathize, and consider ways to meet someone in their story and experience.
Eye contact allows our hearts and our bodies to feel the warm sense of connection in our relationships. Dr. Kay McDonald writes in her research on eye contact, “A sustained gaze has the potential to release chemicals, like the ‘cuddle hormone’ oxytocin, making us feel safe and loved. If circumstances are right, an extended gaze can tap into an unconscious establishment of a safe relationship and potentially help someone feel positively received and accepted, unconditionally.”
Through eye contact, we brave the vulnerability of being seen and stepping out from behind our masks with each other. An artist in Philadelphia set up an opportunity for people to step into four minutes of uninterrupted eye contact; such a time frame I imagine felt short and also eternal began to nurture “accelerated intimacy.”
I’m part of the culture often guilty of staring into my phone. Social media allows for interaction free of eye contact, phones provide tempting distraction from having to look up. Often, I stand beside Scout looking away, and while no one may be desperately seeking my attention in some moments, I wonder who might benefit (myself included), and who I might connect with, if I took more moments to look up and into the eyes of another fellow human being.
Improv provides such an opportunity for these encounters and these possibilities (and I’d dare to say probabilities) for connection. We build these muscles and attunement on stage; if we take this skill beyond the stage and into the world, imagine the impact on each other and ourselves. Looking up from our phones and into the eyes of another, we encounter and connect with them and ourselves. Scout looking at me is the foundation for anything else she and I build together. The more we practice improv and the attunement required for that collaborative creativity, the more we learn to see and encounter. And therein, we set free our own and our shared humanity.
Look at me.
Evey McKellar is a Level 5 Improv student, a writer and UMC clergy. She works for a nonprofit, lives in Dallas, and loves Cane Rosso.