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.