Don't Fire


The other night I sat down in front of the TV. I was done with thinking. All I wanted was some brain candy to see through to bedtime. Scrolling through the options I spotted “War for the Planet of the Apes.” Perfect. A remake so I didn’t have to figure out the premise. The ending was already in the title. Apes win so I barely had to pay attention to the plot. I didn’t have to worry about all the ape-ish actors who might suffer horrendous injuries because every one of them was a CGI incarnation.

I settled down and prepared to put myself into a self-induced stupor but from the moment I saw the main chimp Cesar, something bugged me about him. Sure they had tried to make him more human by giving quite the simian swagger and his voice had a Vin Diesel vibe. But it was the brooding expression that caught my eye. More to the point it was it was his eyes that caught my eye. It was so obvious the writers made Woody Harrelson’s charter blurt it out. Cesar’s eyes were almost human.

That got me to thinking, just the thing I’d set out not to do. What is it about is about human eyes that make them so distinctive? It has to do with the pigmentation. In humans, the iris is pigmented but the area around the iris, the sclera, is not. Primates have pigmented sclera, so there’s barely any contrast between the iris and surrounding face. Dogs have white sclera but it’s only visible, as far as I can tell, when they have been a really bad doggie. That probably explains why it so easy for them to manipulate us. Hmmm… I should pitch my own sequel: Chihuahua: End of Days.

With great regret, I started to think more. What good is a white sclera? Red or pink sclera can be associated with poor health or poor judgment exercised during a wild night on the town. Either way, a warning sign for humans looking for a suitable mate rather than a one-off date. A yellowing sclera can be a sign of jaundice or old age, which explains why I cover my eyes when I look in the mirror.

A more interesting reason is that an iris that stands out allows us to know what someone is looking at. This is useful because it’s likely that what’s got their attention might be of interest to us too. It’s a mechanism for communicating without saying a thing. Being able to infer that someone might have noticed something we haven’t, or simply understand that others might have a different perspective from us, is known as Theory of Mind.

Sometimes we don’t want other people to know what’s going on in our head. We can avert our gaze to deceive someone else. Pokers players do this by controlling their attention and projecting dampened emotions. You probably thought poker players wore sunglasses to look really cool, but it's more likely they are really bad at keeping a poker face like the rest of us. Since gorillas don’t have prominent white sclera they are undoubtedly most excellent poker players. You have been warned. Play them and you will lose the shirt off your bald back.

As improvisers, we want the exact opposite. We want our eyes to project emotion. We can transmit intent through our gaze. We can deepen our connection to our scene partner by using this additional communications path. The idea that humans intentionally leverage their gaze while working together is called the cooperative eye hypothesis.

Go to most ComedySportz® matches and you will see a game called 5 Thingz. Players must guess activities or sports, like for example curling, that they are playing with elements of the activity changed in bizarre ways based on suggestions from the Loyal Fans. To make things harder players are denied normal conversation and must communicate in mime and gibberish. The guessing is time bound. Watch as the eyes of the guessers lock onto those of their teammates. Understanding is amplified by the expressions in their eyes. The focus of their mime is directed via their gaze.

Ask any player who has played 5 Thingz with a gorilla and they will probably tell you it’s a lot harder, because as the studies show, apes are most likely to follow the gaze of the player only when their head moves. It breaks eye contact. That and gorillas have a hard time understanding what on earth curling is, let alone why the ice is lime jello and the stone is the cast of Friends.

I’ve only been at this improv thing for a little over a year but watching the Major League shows and working with my coaches, you can sense great improvisers communicate through multiple channels. Of course, there are the characters they create and what those characters say and do. The story is the backbone of a scene that the supports the characters. But the magic is the cooperation nurtured through unseen channels via the channels through which we see.

Guy “The Eyes Have It” Winterbotham has been working on his Marty Feldman impression while drinking too much coffee at ComedySportz® Richmond since 2017.

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