Starting to learn comedic improv usually means doing short scenes (I'll arbitrarily draw a line at "4 minutes or less"). Short scenes means you're under time pressure as a performer, the pressure to be funny quickly and frequently. And if we're doing comedy this means silence becomes the enemy. More silence equals less funny.
It's not a great lesson. But I get it.
When we're improvising, especially in front of an audience, our adrenaline is racing, the heat is on and we feel the need to DO something, anything, to get a reaction from the audience. And what's the number one tool we reach for when we're in that state? Our mouth.
Improvisers are a talkative bunch, me included. We rely on our words to create our improv worlds. They can be beautiful, lyrical, and hilarious. But we also rely on words to fill the void. We can seize with panic when we're not sure what to do next in a scene. We use words to stall for time. We use words to talk our way into an idea. We use words like water from a firehose to put out the fire we feel burning inside us.
Here's my challenge to you: what if we made friends with silence?
There are many ways to respond other than talking. We can react emotionally before we say a word. Let our body language respond. Let our face respond. Give it a beat. Leave space before you say another word.
You can also simply hold that space. Use it to underline a key moment in a scene. "I'm leaving you." is a powerful line. Saying something right away in response, moves the scene past that moment. The audience doesn't have time to process and absorb it. Responding with dialogue robs the audience and the show of having a comedic or emotional moment land. Responding with silence lets that line hit harder, lets the audience feel that moment, and it sets us up for bigger laughs or stronger feelings.
It can feel incredibly uncomfortable to not say anything in a scene. Two seconds can feel like an eternity, like the audience is getting bored because nothing is happening. But we are terrible at gauging how time passes when we're improvising and equally bad at conflating silence with boredom when the reality may be that the audience is very engaged and holding their breath to see what happens next.
Exercise: Do a scene where each player is only allowed one line of dialogue at a time. Also the other player cannot respond until they mentally count to 5 slowly, aiming to wait 5 real seconds.
Follow-Up Questions: What did it feel like to hold those 5 seconds of silence? What did it feel like as an audience member to watch those 5 seconds? What can we do as performers during those 5 seconds without speaking?
There are two kinds of silence in improv: one arises from an uncertainty in how to proceed, the other is a conscious choice. The audience can tell which is which. I want to challenge improvisers to choose silence and wield it. Be comfortable with silence, use that silence to add drama and tension to a scene, use that space to react physically to what is happening, in your body, in your face. More than simply being still, more than simply allowing silence to exist in your scenes, make silence your scene partner and invite them onto the stage as well. Leave that space for the audience to process, observe, and live in that moment.
Talk less, say more.