All of your actions on stage read. I learned this as a theatre and clown performer, and it’s totally true for improv.
We don’t realize how much we are communicating in every moment of a scene with every little detail of our actions, the tone of our voice, the timing of our actions and speech, etc.
Most inexperienced (and even highly experienced) improvisers only notice a small portion of the context behind their words and actions on stage. Many often throw too many ideas and moves into a scene to make it go, not realizing how much information they are already adding with minimal action and dialogue… if they would only think to notice.
Much like in life, a lot of actions on stage are performed unconsciously. We miss a lot of the weight behind the words we say. Many players ramble or invent information, not realizing that the first five or six words said or the first thing they did said a lot: The content present in their tone, their delivery, their body language.
However, most importantly, the audience sees and hears EVERYTHING you do on stage. You may not have realized your random gestures and tics, or all the words you said, mattered a lot. But the audience sees them, and therefore it does.
For example, I start a scene by walking out with a limp of my left leg. My character and another character begin a conversation. During this conversation we walk around, and I not only don’t acknowledge the limp in the scene, but the limp eventually disappears as the scene progresses.
Even if you can argue the limp didn’t fit the character and scene I ended up playing… the audience saw me limp, and subsequently saw me a) apparently not notice I was limping and b) give up doing the limp, as if it wasn’t relevant.
I have now sent the message to the audience that not everything I do on stage is important, or relevant. I have given them permission to tune out not only my choices, but my scene partner’s choices. I have advertised to them that I’m not fully invested in the scene. ALL of this is regardless of how I personally feel about the work I believe I have presented.
Any action or words that happens before an audience’s eyes is reality in the show, let alone the scene. If I treat any given movement or decision like it doesn’t matter, now I’ve sent the message that what the audience is watching doesn’t totally matter. Even if they choose to stay on my side and remain invested in the drama of the show, now I’ve put more of the burden of suspending disbelief on them because I did an insufficient effort on my part to aid them in doing so.
Sounds like I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself, right? Well, not if I don’t just simplify my choices, and instead of trying to do a lot, I just treat with importance every move or word I do add to a scene.
Whether or not any of this lack of awareness and attention to detail does break my show, such negligence certainly does not help my improv, and it is certainly avoidable. Most of us aren’t amazing performers that consistently kill it on stage. We need all the help we can give ourselves.
Most of all, once we get used to giving our work this attention to detail, it becomes second nature and a lot easier. And I won’t offer any guarantees, but I bet the scenework becomes consistently better… more fun, even.
I’ll offer a class or rehearsal exercise that can help illustrate the idea:
ATTENTION TO DETAIL EXERCISE
Have a single player come out and initiate a scene by themselves. Freeze after a few seconds. As a group, instructor/coach/director and ensemble, point out and briefly discuss all the things you noticed about what the player did, how they carried themselves, how their voice sounded, etc… along with what each of those things indicate. After a brief but satisfactory discussion the player may sit down. (If the instructor/coach/director has a solid handle on noticing details, they may even start this process on their own to helpfully illustrate to students the level of detail they have permission to explore.)
What the player on stage will almost always discover is that they did and presented far, far more actions and traits than they may have initially noticed. They might have been conscious of a quarter of the details their peers noticed. Obviously, having a bunch of peers dissect the moment means more will be noticed. But it will show how much we communicate within a bare minimum of action or words.
Once everyone has done this individual exercise once or twice, have two people initiate a scene. After a few seconds, freeze them, and have the seated viewers (like before) point out all the traits they noticed in one player’s actions. Then do the same for the other. From there, you may unfreeze the scene and have the players continue playing for about a minute or two.
To really hammer the point home, you may add the wrinkle of instructing those players to move as little as possible, or set a limit on how much they can say at one time… or both!
Once every action and word has finite and significant economy, players will quickly recognize the importance their every little move has on the scene. They might even have fun with it, given the limited need to make choices saves them the trouble of inventing information or doing any more than just being present in the moment of the scene within their individual established contexts.
What seems like a stressful exercise at first can be freeing to players, once they realize they need not make so many specific choices at the top of a scene to build a great scene.
The more actions and words a player does with specific intention, the richer their character work, and the more the audience will buy into the scene. If you do something on stage and don’t notice you did or said it, the audience sees you drop the ball, which saps more of their confidence in the show then most players care to admit, leaving you the task of regaining that lost confidence, on top of creating a compelling scene.
Engaging improv is not just your words, your choices, your characters and relationships… but also how invested and in the moment you are with the scene, and with every choice you make in the moment. The audience can read every choice you make, even if you can’t.