Shut up already

Improv can be beautiful and elegant, but it can also be really damn loud. Improvisers are a wordy bunch. Go to almost any show in any city and you can pretty much “watch” whatever improv show with your eyes closed and not miss much. Most improvisers fear dismemberment by a crazed mob less than they fear silence on stage. Talking, it seems, is easier than acting, and making a witty comment less risky than showing true emotions. All this leads to most improv shows that are essentially people standing on stage yakking at each other.

This addiction to the spoken word begins when new improvisers are just learning the craft and continues to be reinforced through most of their training. Focusing improv instruction on things like “rules,” justification, and creating CROW immediately causes most improvisers to think a lot on stage. And just as sure as dancing leads to kissing, thinking leads to talking.

In an effort to curb all this verbal diarrhea I spend a good deal of my first couple of improv classes teaching A and E. (After coving the obligatory “get to know you” games and exploring “Yes And….”)

What’s A and E? A And E are the basic non-verbal offers (or story-forwarders) of Action and Emotion. In other words, I first teach new improvisers to go on stage and do things, while keeping their damn traps zipped!

Beginners need to be taught the basics of mime, for example. This is someone holding a gun:


This is someone pointing a finger at someone:


One excellent way to teach action and (Bonus!) story elements is “What Happens Next?” in the book IMPRO by Keith Johnstone. WHN is a great way to teach people how to slow down and complete actions on stage, without having to talk about them.

Another great exercise for action and (double Bonus!) story is “Advance/ Expand.” This is best done as a one person activity. One volunteer gets up and begins miming a simple activity, like reading a book. I side coach either “advance” or “expand.” “Advance” means that the story should move forward. The actor might turn the page, or put the book down, or get up and move, etc. In other words, do an action that moves the story forward. A side coach of “expand” means that the actor should stay with whatever action he is currently doing but make it bigger or do more with it. One might become emotionally overwhelmed by the text on the page as an option, or very meticulously turn the page. “Advance/expand” teaches improvisers to be physically present in the story.

Other great action games are mirrors, human machine, or even just guess what the person on stage is doing… Anything that gets the actors to actually… um, ACT rather than just blab, blab, blab works well.

The second tool I teach to new improvisers is Emotion. I teach emotion as a wordless (but not necessarily soundless) reaction to what they are feeling. We spend a good deal of time working on heightening different emotions and reacting emotionally. When the class has a good handle on wordless emotional reactions (crying, laughing, being scared, etc) we do some activities that also let them talk. The game “It’s Tuesday” is a nice way to work the skill of emotional reactions.

By the end of teaching A and E most students are able to do something that many seasoned improvisers find challenging, namely being on stage without having to flap their flipping gums all the flipping time. A and E allow improvisers to create reality and story without having to talk about it. And that is a beautiful thing.


About improvmantra

What is an improv mantra? An improv mantra is a phrase you repeat to yourself just before you go on stage, and continue to keep in your mind while you are in a scene. An effective mantra makes you a better improviser. Todd Erler, like all living creatures, has been doing improv every day since he was born. He has been performing improv on stage for more than 20 years. He is a teacher, writer, musicain, director, actor, and member of The Portable Reality Show.
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9 Responses to Shut up already

  1. Jordan says:

    Great article. I find myself being a talking head most of the time….
    It is also helpful in real life to sometimes just be quiet, especially during negotiations or when trying to get information from someone…the old prosecutor’s trick of asking a question and letting the other person run at the mouth. There is power in silence! Now if only I could shut myself up.

  2. Beth says:

    That’s one thing our improv teachers here in Austin have tried to get through our heads – the power of silence and being comfortable with the silence (something I definitely need work on). We’ve also used it as a tool when playing status games (based in Keith Johnstone’s theories on status) where we try to learn to use silence as a way to gain status in the scene in combination with our physicality. I do like to use silence (when I get out of my head and remember I can actually be silent). BTW, love the “this is a gun” “this is pointing a finger” – now there needs to be a “this is a phone” “this is Hanging 10!” 🙂

    Really enjoyed your post!

    • improvmantra says:

      Thanks. I love seeing improv in Austin. My wife and I will be there around Memorial Day. Are you in a show? We always see a couple when we are there.

      • Beth says:

        Sadly no, I’m still working on “taking risks” and trying to follow my feet out on stage – my biggest obstacle and why I’ve been hiding behind sketch writing for the past few months (don’t tell any of my teachers). But there will doubtlessly be some great shows that weekend. I need to check the Hideout and Salvage Vanguard’s calendars this month to see what’s coming up; I know there have been a lot of auditions for new troupes. It’s hard to believe that Out of Bounds is just around the corner; this year has flown by.

  3. Also guilty! I find it easier to be silent and more physical when I’m the third person in a scene; then I can just focus on what could support the other two. Ultimately my best scenes happen when I don’t just blurt something, but give the scene (and my character) space to breathe. It’s a process, for sure.

  4. improvmantra says:

    Yeah, we are all talkers… me too.

  5. Nice! It reminds me of clicking the subscribe button on a blog and getting eight posts a day. Back off!

  6. Improv is a form of theater, an art form which is dominated by scripted theater. It isn’t separate from acting. All improvisors are actors, who follow a particular method at arriving at truth on stage, and communicating that truth. It’s ironic that I spend a lot of time arguing that to scripted actors who have disdain for improvisors, and now improvisors seem to be returning the favor! That said, there are many things that the folks on the scripted side have worked on and learned that those on the improvised side can benefit from. Stagecraft (like knowing to cheat out, how to find your light), acting technique (how to be “alive” every moment of every performance) vocal training and movement have been honed into disciplines in scripted theater. Improv schools haven’t developed these areas much, and don’t always need to — they can send their students to the scripted theater schools. Script analysis is also important. If you know why and how Shakespeare, Miller and Mamet told a good story, you can use that knowledge in telling yours. Other things a scripted school offers are less important, (most improvisors learn early on how to quickly find their “motivation” they don’t need a method) or their importance is more abstract, like scene study. Yes, there are improvisors that are great actors without having taken one acting class. When I see them, I often liken them to naive or Outsider artists, those with no formal training who nevertheless make wonderful art. There is no way to fairly compare these artists to, say, Rembrandt, on the other hand, that doesn’t make their art any less beautiful than a piece by one of the Old Masters.

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