Think about those three dots that you see in text chains. You often do. They blink for a mercilessly long time on occasion and your brain wants to fill that space. We can’t help it. We love to contextualize. Our frontal lobe that protects from dangers by visualizing potential threats has been freed from figuring out more basic survival needs of shelter and food and warmth. Instead, it overly fixates on three dots in a thread with questions of “how are they going to respond?” and “why haven’t they responded yet?” and imagining all the possible ways that it could play out, usually in the negative.
When we improvise, we are supposed to just BE in the scene, but our frontal lobe won’t shut up there either. It prompts us to overexplain, to fill up the space with words, to communicate things beyond a shred of doubt. So what happens when the words are removed? When you’re no longer able to fill the time with protective measures such as language? Like in silent improv?
That is because we can’t let go of communicating the biggest segment of contextualization: the why. And it makes us nuts. We can easily convey the who in our improv: physicalizing a walk that shows characteristics. Or the where: opening cabinets that suggest we’re in a kitchen or laying out a towel to make it clear we are at a beach. We can show the what: getting dressed up, sharing a drink, field dressing a deer (my favorite activity suggestion ever). Even the when, as you shield your eyes from an imagined sun beaming overhead.
The why is complicated. It needs words.
I perform in a mostly silent duo called IMP. with the talented Karen Wight where we maybe at most speak 5 words in the course of a half hour. Once, an audience member approached me after a show, telling me how much she loved the scene with the baby. I thanked her, even though I didn’t remember a scene with a baby. There might have been a scene where I held something as if it were a baby. It might have been a dog, it might have been a hat. The key is that I held something in a scene as if it were precious and the woman decided, in her mind, that it was a baby. She had her why overlaid on the scene I did.
This is a huge liberation. Imagine improv where you can impetuously BE and let the audience reason it out. The lesson is that the audience will apply the context based on their own database of perspectives. That leaves you to focus on the moment (moment + context = story). Move purposefully without the burden of having to define it.
Try this: sitting wherever you are, mime an activity that you can do on a table top. Something with mimed props: making a sandwich, fixing a watch, grooming a dog, etc. Then reset, and make a choice to radically change the speed of the activity (move much faster or slower) or the size (the objects are much bigger or smaller). Now you are moving with “perceived” purpose as opposed to intended purpose. Slow becomes meticulous (your narrative may vary) and little details become extremely important. Fast becomes frenzied and stakes get assumed.
Carry this over into your scenework. Watch your scene partner and then arbitrarily make a sudden move towards them or away from them. Anyone watching will assume a relationship. The speed of the move will fill you with a feeling of compulsion, being compelled by your scene partner. Story will immediately follow.
The Why never need enter the picture.
Asaf Ronen is leading a Master Class on Physical Improv starting October 21, 2021.
Join him while spots are still available.