The lights come up and you call for a suggestion. Let’s say the suggestion is “bacon.” Immediately, your mind rushes through the options, your memories of bacon, images, associations, puns, stories, settings, sensations … BACON! Then you look up and you realize the scene has already started. Your scene partner has made a clear offer, and you’re not sure where you are or how you got there.

Of course, you’ll recover. You always do. But let’s examine that undercurrent of noise that interrupts improv. Does inspiration have to be obvious, loud, and in Technicolor? Or is another way to just cleanse the palate and let the scene unfold? In my workshops, I often talk about poetry as an inspiration for improvisers to dislodge the obvious associations and the eager monkey mind of go go go … not that poetry is monolithic, but much of it is just askew enough to recalibrate the brain. In the words of Charles Simic:

                                                                          “Poetry is an orphan of silence”

I never imagined Simic’s quote could be offensive. If anything, it places poetry, as “an orphan of silence,” in a humble position, always in the shadow of the ineffable. If there’s any controversy here, perhaps I sense an accusation of patricide in Simic’s words, as any utterance kills its origin. But once, when I shared that quote in grad school, a professor took issue with the implication: “Doesn’t that logic privilege silence?” she asked. From her perspective, as a sociologist with an emphasis on women’s studies and social justice, silence is not some holy, pure perception to be ruined by words, but rather a symptom of suppression in the face of a louder force. For an improviser, silence may seem like a point of concession, lack of ideas, or weakness. Of course, when we examine these extremes, we find that silence, just like a word, inherits different meanings depending on its context. There’s awkward silence, enforced silence, holy silence, stunned silence, and WTF silence. There’s silence because you pressed “mute” instead of “auxiliary.” But pure, unlabeled silence? That’s a rare commodity.  

For improvisers, silence can be powerful. If you rush onto the stage with a scene partner and you’re rehearsing a monologue in your head, you’ve already silenced the other player. That’s not to say you bring no ideas to the stage. Just like obliterating all thought in meditation is unrealistic, you can’t expect to be a completely blank slate until you notice, hear, or say something in the scene, but you can look to poetry as a different strategy for attacking the silence of a scene. Consider these lines from Anne Carson’s prose poem, The Life of Towns:

You will at first think I am painting the lines myself; it's not so.  I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there. And the mysterious thing, it is a very mysterious thing, is how these lines do paint themselves.  Before there were any edges or angels or virtue -- who was there to ask the questions?

This aesthetic echoes the classic logic of Michelangelo, who said he “saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free” (Then Michelangelo blinked and disappeared). We’re talking about discovery more than invention. Isn’t more satisfying when a scene surprises you as much as it surprises the audience? Especially in collaboration, you’re working to set the scene free, to stumble into a narrative, make the choices inspired by what is unfolding, and embrace every hairpin turn in the narrative as it carries you along. The story tells itself. While I don’t want to sound too mystical about it, I think silence and a poetic view can invite discovery in a scene that we’d otherwise never see, too wrapped up in trying to force an angle or bulldoze the other players into submission. Humility tends to boost our senses while the ego dulls them. A loud agenda blocks offers before we even notice them.

Does playing out of silence mean playing low status? Actually, a position of silence can be a position of strength. Who has a higher status, the improviser flailing around like a late 80’s Robin Williams, or the improviser holding ground, taking a breath, and completely aware of her surroundings and everyone else on stage? Jill Farris, a UP alum and beloved improv teacher, sometimes seems unassuming and Lilliputian, but she can often disarm a blustery high status player by simply bringing a fierce and generous compassion to her character, supporting every offer and conveying more in a few words than someone with the typical “high status” markers of size, volume, and words, words, words.

Like any self-critical improviser, of course, I’m really giving these notes to myself. A couple of weeks ago I was caught in my own ego trance of trying a scene in the style of Chekov (because, you know, the kids love Chekov), and I didn’t even realize how domineering I was until another player responded, “Why are you yelling?” I didn’t think I was yelling, but I guess I was. I was so caught up in my stentorian Chekov voice that I may have missed the quieter offers in the scene. I appreciate being called out like this, even in the middle of a scene, because it jolts me back into awareness and derails any preconceived agendas. There are times to be loud. There are moments to scream, sing, run, kick, and breakdance. We get these moments in improv all the time. But there are also those moments when we can let down our guards, hold our tongues, and discover the angel in the marble, the bacon in the gelato, or the astronaut on the dance floor—poetry doesn't have to be precious or somber, just original.

When I think about the bare stage (much like a blank page), I recall Paul Éluard: “There is another world, and it is this one.” What’s going to happen in the scene? Whatever is happening right now. How am I going to respond if they change my idea? However I’d respond if my idea held true and then it changed. What is that astronaut doing on the dance floor? He’s dancing, silently, in a vacuum of space. Listen closely and you’ll know what happens next.

My wife thinks Adam is insane for telling his wife that his intern kissed him. She can’t believe that Emily would let a sociopath like Amanda anywhere near her home. Meanwhile, why is Ned so rash, so stubborn, in spite of all his family has been through, that he would put his life on the line? These scenarios are from the television programs Parenthood, Revenge, and Game of Thrones, respectively. Holly tends to get a little more attached to the characters than I do, even as she sometimes feels infuriated by the choices they make. In each show, characters make irrational decisions, and sometimes (in the case of Revenge, Weeds, and many other shows) the writers are absurd and manipulative, even as they entertain. But as long as absurd is better than boring, these are the kinds of bad decisions that improvisers need to make more often. In short, improvisers are too rational for their own good.

With any book, play, program, or film, you encounter drama with a duel role: An ally and a saboteur. The ally shuns conflict while the saboteur thrives on it. The ally wants to yell at the screen and tell the girl not to go into the basement. The saboteur knows the killer is hiding down there with a chainsaw and will be disappointed if the girl leaves him waiting. Bothe the ally and saboteur are simultaneously viewing the story, fueling the tension and investment in what happens next.

Even if you have zero control over the script, part of you is telling the story in tandem with the narrative you observe, predicting, reflecting, and filtering it through your interests as a viewer. Sometimes, that means the character makes an irrational choice that makes sense to her in the moment, even as the ally in you cringes. If the story is well told, the dueling impulses find a satisfying resolution in both conflict and overcoming, ideally resolved in a way that is both unexpected and inevitable.  

As an improviser, you actually have at least three roles: ally, saboteur, and character. This time, you do share control and responsibility of the narrative, even as part of you is observing what happens as it happens. Part of you has sympathy for the character you’ve embodied, and you’ll do anything to stay protected. But the saboteur in you, the observer, knows that you need to get into trouble. You have to channel these dueling impulses in every choice you make. You have to make choices you don’t agree with. Otherwise, we get scenes like this:

Player 1: Look out, a dragon!

Player 2: Oh, don’t worry, I just killed it because I’m a Dragonborn.

Player 1: What about that Tsunami?

Player 2: I just stopped it with my mind.

Player 1: I’m actually an evil wizard and I’m here to destroy you!

Player 2: Shut up, you’re a tree.

In improv, we call this “cancelling.” It’s a form of saying no, even when it may feel like you’re saying “Yes” to the wish of the other character’s desire to avoid danger. “Yes, and” must ultimately be an affirmation of the story’s core conflict, even if it takes an incidental “no” along the way. A fellow improviser once gave this example:

Princess: Please, Mr. Ogre, let me go!

Ogre: Never!

If you are the ogre in that scenario, are you blocking? If you’re reading the expectations of the princess correctly, you’re actually accepting the offer. The princess as an ally sincerely wants to escape, but the princess as a good improviser (and saboteur) knows it can’t be too easy.

The next time you’re stalled on stage and a story isn’t going anywhere, ask yourself: Am I acting as the ally or the storyteller? Am I willing to let myself get into trouble? Am I trying to be honest, or settling with being safe? Making these distinctions also helps us offstage, when sometimes the reverse principle holds: Am I making the right decisions in my life, or am I chasing drama because the saboteur in me is addicted to conflict?

But as an improviser, you have the context to give up being safe. Make the hasty confession. Go into the basement. Let yourself lose footing for once before you know where you’re going to land.