I hate talking on the phone. You might think it’s because I grew up in a world where texting, instant messaging, and Skype were the norm. But more than that, I have a hard time talking to someone without seeing their face. During most long phone conversations (except with you, Mom), my mind starts to wander. I stop listening. I miss half of what’s said because I’m too busy thinking about what I’m going to cook for dinner.
In improv, we have a name for scenes that feel this way—“talking head” scenes. The players sit or stand around and have a conversation without actively doing anything, sometimes without really even paying attention to one another.
From the audience’s perspective, these scenes are boring.There’s no compelling reason to watch anything happening on stage even if the dialogue is interesting. They’re only actively using their ears. It’s the same reason why no one is signing up to watch the table read of Hamlet. The audience wants a richer sensory experience complete with set, costumes, and swordplay.
From the improviser’s perspective, talking head scenes give you time to think and focus solely on creating compelling dialogue, which makes them a favorite of newbies everywhere. But time to think is, ironically, a bad thing.
When you have time to let your mind wander, you stop listening, start planning ahead, and stop reacting to what your scene partner is saying.
The beauty of improv is its spontaneity. Anything that gets in the way of that spontaneity negatively impacts the scene. And the best way to get out of your head, stop planning, and follow the fun is to engage in something outside of simply talking.
SO HOW DO YOU AVOID THE TALKING HEAD?
- Visualize your environment. Improvisers don’t have the benefit of costumes or sets, like the actors in Hamlet. They also don’t have a script like Hamlet, but seem to make do. Just as you make up the dialogue, you can make up the environment by visualizing it in your head. When you know the exact location of the sink and the dining room table, you’re subconsciously encouraging yourself to interact with your surroundings, which makes it easier for the audience to “see” what you’re seeing.
- Start slow. The first line of dialogue doesn’t have to come in the first second of scene work. Start slowly, look at your scene partner, and do some object work that sets the mood before you open your mouth. It’s much easier to do something at the top of the scene and carry it through than it is to magically start environment work in the middle.
- Find a reason to do something. If you feel you’re trapped in a talking heads scene, find a way to get out. At an emotional high point, walk away from your scene partner. If you discover some truth about your character, for example, that you’re really messy, go over the pizza boxes lying on the floor and put them in the trash. Discover a reason to take action as a direct result of the dialogue you created.
It’s easy to get hung up on what you say in an improv set. Making up the script as you go can be demanding. As improvisers, we tend to overstate the importance of dialogue. We believe the audience came to see us make up funny lines. But I’ve seen many outstanding performances that used very little or even no dialogue.
The audience has come to see a show, and that involves so much more than just what’s said.
If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love my book Improv ABC: The A-Z Guide to Becoming an Unstoppable Improviser. It’s “real-talk” guide to improv’s key concepts that can help you nail your show tonight (or in 2 days…Prime shipping…you know how it is).