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.