Muggle: I could never do that on stage, I can’t think that fast
Improvisor: You’re doing it right now. We’re improvising all the time.
Student: How do I know what to ‘Yes and’?
Teacher: Just listen harder.
There’s a lot of truth in both of those answers, but they’re incomplete. The first is true. We’re all acting without scripts all day long. But we’re acting on years or decades of our own personal back-story that informs how we react; what we say. We don’t have that when we step into a character. We’re still learning who we are to ourselves and our scene partners. The second is also absolutely true. Listening is the key to building relationships. But how? Most students who ask this questions thought they already were listening. They heard all the words. They speak English (or whatever language the scene is in) well enough to parse sentences. So how can they listen better. We offer very little specifics in improv instruction, so here’s one. I propose the answer to both of those questions is not simply to listen, but listen like a fourteen year old.
Try to remember back to eighth grade. It was a weird time. In many ways, every character we inhabit is similar to a teenager; trying to discover who we are and how we fit into the world around us. What are our passions? What kind of person are we going to become? How do other people view us? How do we relate to those around us? What are these new emotions we aren’t accustomed to? Sound familiar? Of course it is. We may not consciously give time to those notions when we enter scenes, but they’re there. And this isn’t a bad thing. This is a wonderful thing. This uncertainty helps us seek out who we are. Somehow miraculously, teenagers survive. They turn into young men and women ready to change the world. Of course, if you’ve ever had to raise a teen (God Bless You) or spend any quality time with them, you know that it can be a trying process.
That’s because as adults, we sometimes use words recklessly. We don’t think through every sentence before we say it; think of all the ways it could be interpreted. But to a teen, they are desperate for clues as to how they are perceived and treated. They are paranoid about every word choice, gesture and fashion choice you make. They dig for meaning where none is present. Even if there’s nothing “between the lines”, they’ll find something there.
Take example from their paranoia. As performers, we are also often even more lax in our choices (in word and deed) onstage because we often act before understanding our own motivations. Don’t let your scene partners or yourselves get away with that. Every word, every movement, every facial expression means something to you. Don’t treat anything as throwaway. Ask these questions;
“Why did you just say that?”
“Why did you say it to me? You could have shared that information with anyone. Why me? What is different about me that I am told this and not someone else?”
“If you’re telling me, you want to have an effect on me? What do you want me to do? How are you trying to make me feel? How will this change who we are to each other?”
Don’t be satisfied with the first answer to this question. Keep asking. Assume that there’s more.
It’s not just for your scene partners either. Ask questions of everything you say. You’ll be delighted that words that come out of your mouth inform so much more than you might imagine.
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Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America. He was once fourteen.