This past weekend was the Quad Show at Parkway North. All of the four schools came together and battled for the title of, well, winner. (There's not really an incentive for winning. It's more about making the audience happy.) One scene in particular stood out to me for reasons that wouldn't stand out to the audience.

Hunh? Let me lay it out for you.

Here's the scene: Shortform. Blind Line. Four students on stage at the same time. The plot is three children want to buy a nuclear submarine and a very proper mother (with a speech impediment) objects to it. The scene is a conversation, more or less, about the pros and cons of submarine ownership.

So what made it stand out to an improv coach and why wouldn't the audience notice it? Because there's something the audience is taking for granted. We don't notice when we pick up our cell phones and successfully hear someone talking, miles away. We don't notice when the news has a forecast for the weather. We don't notice when we turn the key in the ignition and the car starts. But when something goes wrong, we notice. And then we realize that everything we took for granted was actually a very fragile thing and depended on the hard work of many skilled people to stay aright.

What was remarkable to me was that none of the four students talked over each other. There were many things working against them:
  • So many people onstage at once.
  • Blind Line tends to be over-talky because players look at the slips of paper instead of each other
  • It was for an audience, so there's the pressure to impress.
  • The scene was very conversational. Not at all action-based.

So how did they succeed? They listened. They waited to be sure the current speaker stopped talking before speaking. Nobody over-pushed to talk. It was a clear scene, kept very simple and, in it's own way, very polite even though the conversation was downright argumentative at times.

It reminded me of a nursery rhyme that I read to my kids every now and then:

A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can't we all be like that wise old bird?

So here's the real question: How do I - the performer - learn to defeat the yap monster? How do I apply this principle and become like the wise old owl?
  1. Practice.
  2. Change your focus. Make your time onstage less about saying the perfect thing and more about reacting. Re-ACT. Respond to what is said. Don't focus on making the audience happy or your need to succeed. Those will come on their own. Some tricks for doing that:
    1. Change focus. Look for the color of the speaker's eyeballs. Really focus on their eyes.
    2. Stop talking for 60 seconds, no matter what happens. Trust you have the acting skills to make whatever happens next work.
    3. Live in the moment. Ask yourself the question. What would your character really be doing, right now?
    4. Open up. State how your character feels. Once you and your scene partners hear how the character feels, it's a huge gift. It changes the game a little and makes it almost impossible not to react to things. After all, your emotions are the gameball now.
A wise old owl lived in an oak - LIVE IN THE MOMENT
The more he saw the less he spoke - STOP TALKING
The less he spoke the more he heard. - CHANGE FOCUS
Why can't we all be like that wise old bird? - OPEN UP