One of the first questions people ask when they find out I am an improviser is ‘What happens if you can’t think of anything to say?’ As if saying things is the most important part.
And it’s true: some improvisers tend to conflate how much dialogue one creates with how much one was ‘in’ the scene. Like they were cast in a play and, because they were given only a few written lines, thought their role wasn’t important. But I believe that in improv, the person not speaking can be the most important person on stage. They are the listener, the receiver, the one with the power to react.
I love it when this happens in scripted film and theatre. For example:
In “No Country for Old Men”, Javier Bardem’s character silently intimidates a gas station attendant with just his menacing presence and the flip of a coin. The tension in the scene is palpable.
In “Lost in Translation”, when Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray’s character share a wordless goodbye at the end of the film. Their silent exchange speaks volumes about their connection and the bittersweet nature of their parting.
In “Killing Eve”, Jodie Comer plays an enigmatic and multilingual assassin. Throughout the series, she often conveys extremely complex emotions silently, from moments of intense violence to vulnerable glimpses of her character’s humanity.
So, when teaching, I’ll often coach players to pause, and just to talk less. But that can create make people look worried or bored! Or like they are just waiting to say a thing that they had already thought of.
Lord knows I’ve been in, and watched, improv that had a lot of talking but somehow nothing of any significance was said.
So here’s a little poem I wrote for those of us who sometimes struggle to find the quieter side of improv:
‘Shut up’ (Or how to talk less in improv’)
On your partner, on the audience, on the environment, on the sounds in the room.
How do you feel? How does your character feel?
Take the emotional punch
Feel the souls of your feet on the ground. Notice how you are standing or sitting.
Express yourself using your face.
Express yourself using your body.
Is there something you need to say? Enjoy not saying it.
Want to say it. Long to say it. Be desperate to say it. Don’t say it.
Look at the other person on stage. Look at their face, look at their eyes, look in their eyes if you can.
Connect with them.
Land in the moment.
Take the emotional punch.
I hope this helps. And if you still don’t believe me I recommend checking out the following silent improv troupes, all of which uses silence in completely different ways:
I hope to not speak to you soon!