Last year, I got a note from an instructor visiting San Francisco that by making eye contact in a particular scene, I had betrayed the character I was playing. More recently, I got what felt like a conflicting note from another visiting instructor: ABC. Always Be eye-Contacting. The underlying concept motivating this advice is that one needs to be aware of what their scene partner is doing, and eye contact is one of the most effective means of accomplishing this.
The difficulty in resolving that advice is that I’ve seen veteran improvisers avoid direct eye contact in scenes that I liked. Indeed, there were several moments during the Messing with a Friend set in which Susan Messing and Mark Sutton weren’t looking at each other, nor were they narrating what they were doing, but they were still able to pick up on cues from the other. Someone asked about this after the show, and I overheard the response: “Peripheral vision.”