How friendly are you with silence? Is it a comfortable, calm place to rest or is it an anxious void you need to fill? I’ve been accused at times of being too quiet and at others of talking too much. Knowing when and how much to talk can be a complicated issue.
Words usually hold my attention more than action. During chase or fight scenes in movies, my mind wanders until dialogue returns. And yet during improv practice, I’m drawn in when one of my teammates silently sets up an environment. To see the emotions and the world she creates without speech is magical.
I want that ability, but instead I arrive in a scene and spout words to explain why I’m there. Why? Sometimes it’s an irrational defense against the terror of being the focus of attention. Other times, it’s a misguided conviction that I must do the opposite of what feels right. If not speaking feels safe, I must force myself to speak as much as possible. That’ll prove I’m not shy!
During opening night of Improv Festivus 2017 at the ComedySportz® Richmond theater, I had a minor epiphany. I was watching Florida-based long-form duo Four First Names. Chris Barry walked onto stage and made a simple statement. It was concise and just specific enough. It also left much to the imagination, and what was left unsaid hooked me. Richard Paul seemed to let the statement sink in. He did not rush his response or start giving explanations. Together, these two improvisers took their time as they allowed body language and facial expression to convey what was really going on.
It was not a silent scene. On the contrary, many lines resonated and have stuck with me. The dialogue between Chris and Richard was rich with emotional significance because they made their words matter. Rather than throwing a lot of random statements to the wind and reacting, they allowed the emotional weight of the scene dictate their statements. In doing so, they painted a portrait of a couple with complex emotional needs and desires. And in that world of difficult feelings lay humor. It was funny because it felt real.
I was still reflecting on how Chris and Richard’s mastery of listening and responding when I attended Festivus workshops on Saturday.
During a workshop with Joe Bill, he talked about his own realization that there are times that call for him to be the straight man who supports the star. Simply being himself and giving his partner what she or he needs to shine is enough. I’ve heard some version of this advice ever since I began studying improv nearly two years ago but I don’t think I’ve really let it sink in until Joe put it in words that resonated.
“You are enough,” he said.
Whoa. Deep, right? This brilliantly simple nugget of wisdom made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside as I realized that every scene does not have to be an exercise in forcing myself into unnatural dialogue just so I can feel like I’m really working hard. I can be myself.
When I took my first improv class, I was determined to push my introverted self out of my comfort zone. I’ve equated improv lessons with the need to speak in front of people. Combined with my ingrained belief that I must work hard, be uncomfortable, and become someone else in order to succeed in life, this mixed-up idea of how to learn improv left me little room to be the naturally observant, quiet listener that I am.
I’d been making it way too hard on myself.
During my afternoon workshop with Alli Soowal and Kristin Finger, a fellow student confessed that he struggles to use silence in scenes. Inexperience and nervousness often lead him to talk too much, he said, and I wanted to shout “Hear ye, hear ye!” As I watched one amazing scene after another during that workshop, I became more and more worried that I was not up to the skill level of my classmates.
And then a sort of Improv Festivus miracle happened.
When it was my turn to do a scene with two players I didn’t know, I found myself silently reacting to the suggestion Kristin and Alli gave us. I watched my scene partners for cues and I continued to react with facial expressions and movements. At some point, a voice in my head said, “You can’t get away with this. You need to say something!” so I inserted a brief line. I could have kept my mouth shut because everyone loved what I was doing. The same classmate who had expressed his desire to work with silence told me how much he enjoyed my performance of few words. I was in shock.
I’ve seen improv students throw too many meaningless words into their scenes and I think each person does it for his own reason, intentional or not. For me, I thought that being a person of few words was a form of cheating. I thought I had to force myself to work harder and to carry my weight verbally.
If you want to work on being less wordy, it may help to understand your own subconscious reasons.
I’ll also leave you with a homework assignment. It’s the same assignment Joe Bill gave at the workshop I attended. It’s this: watch Robert De Niro silently sitting on a couch in the movie Jackie Brown. Being a diligent improv student, I am going to complete this homework assignment soon. I hope you will, too, so we can compare notes. I’d love to hear what you think. Drop a note in the comments below!