In the spirit of this Theatresports commandment, I’ll keep this introduction brief and just observe:
Thou shalt not waffle
I’m not sure that the concept of waffling has gained as much traction in North American improv as some of the more universal terms mentioned within the Theatresports “Ten Commandments.” Wimping – for me a related term – is referenced later in this taxonomy and I think it is a more familiar phrase for many. I consider waffling as almost a subset of this broader concept. While wimping refers to the act of halfhearted engagement with a choice or providing a postponing energy, waffling is the verbal manifestation of this to the nth degree. To waffle is to become verbally effusive, filling any perceived empty stage space with an often meandering diatribe that might only loosely have a relation to the topic and action at hand. This prior sentence might be an example! For those of us who are inclined to be more verbal than physical in our craft, this is a particularly common trap as it allows us to escape into the seeming safety of our words where we don’t have to actually interact with our partners or be changed by their offers and insights (see Commandment #5 here).
It’s worthy to note that instructors often warn of “talking head” scenes where actors essentially stand motionless leaving the rest of their bodies disengaged while typically “witty” dialogue ensues. To my knowledge, there isn’t an equivalent warning for excessively focusing on our physicality: “That was a great scene, but there wasn’t enough dialogue and you were both just ‘moving bodies’ the whole time…” This might be the clearest indication of the veracity and ongoing import of this particular commandment that encourages us to talk less in our work.
Historically, modern improvisation has gained inspiration and shares commonalities with many storytelling and oral performance traditions, so it might not be surprising that in many situations the word is given preeminence over the body. I’d be interested to see formal statistics but it strikes me that many companies disproportionately favor language-based structures and forms over those with a more explicitly physical focus with the notable exception of practitioners that clearly come from mime or clowning backgrounds. A quick review of short-form games would similarly suggest that language-based formats markedly outnumber those with a focus on truly revealing story through physicality (or is that just the circles that I move in?) There are certainly many games that feature physical gimmicks or gags, such as “Arms Expert” or “Moving Bodies,” but these strike me as a different beast. With the odds stacked against us, then, this commandment is a good reminder for us not to overlook the communicative potentials of our whole bodies when we play.
Engaging our Whole Selves as Improvisers
In the battle many of us face with our waffling tendencies on the improv stage, let’s consider some strategies to increase our physical contributions. I’ve provided these in a loose ranking from most intense to less so…
1.) Don’t speak. This might not be the best approach to try without forewarning your scene partners, and perhaps would be wise to initially explore in a workshop or closed rehearsal, but if you are lover of the word, challenge yourself to make it through a scene or a game with no dialogue. I think this is innately more interesting if your character can speak but is actively choosing not to, so it’s not an invitation to do a series of scenes where your characters are all gagged and tied up or you’re an animal or piece of furniture. If you’re familiar with the communication concept of utterances (sighs, grunts and other non-language speech acts) I think these are well within the spirit of this approach as you still want to be making clear and specific choices for your partner to incorporate into the scene. And obviously you don’t lose at the exercise should you break this pattern at the “perfect” moment and provide fitting dialogue when it’s the strongest choice for the scene or if your partner needs your verbal presence for the scene to move forward. Silent or Gibberish scenes are just a great training device in general if they’re not currently in your repertory.
2.) Give yourself a word limit, version #1. As the scene begins, give yourself a low word target for the scene as a whole, perhaps ten or twenty words. As with the strategy above, this isn’t so much about hitting this self-imposed target precisely, but rather embracing the invitation to make strong physical, emotive and full-bodied choices rather than focusing all your creative energy on your dialogue. How much can you communicate about your relationships to others on stage with a look, gesture, simple touch or staging choice? Don’t bother actively counting the words as this will likely put you back in your head, but rather aim for this approximate number, and make each word important, deliberate and rich with meaning. Literally slowing down your speech and reducing your word count might also unlock interesting new characters and speech patterns to add to your stock as a bonus.
3.) Give yourself a word limit, version #2. This is based on the short-form game I know as “Sentences.” In short, each player receives a number from the audience and that number denotes how many words will be in each of their sentences for the duration of the scene. Again, this is about the spirit of the technique rather than the letter of the law, so select a smaller number for yourself and strive to answer in sentences of approximately that number. As is the case with the challenge above, this strategy is about streamlining your speech acts and making every word count while leaning more heavily into how you say those words and the way your body supports your subtext. Gut checks, discussed in the prior commandment further support this goal of deepening your emotional commitment and connection.
4.) Deploy the “ten second” rule. This is something I came up with for my on-campus troupe that tends to favor language over physicality. We’ll occasionally use it as a training technique but there’s no reason you couldn’t self-impose it for some of your scenes on any given night. Simply put, for the first ten seconds of the scene you need to silently focus on creating your environment and your relationship to it and anyone else present on stage. In a workshop situation, I’ll ring a bell or give a similar signal that dialogue can now start: the key in this moment is not to effusively announce all the things you wanted to say for the last ten seconds or painstakingly describe your past actions but rather trust that you’ve communicated sufficiently to just make the next logical and small step. The “ten seconds” is obviously very much a conceit and I’ll allow this time to linger as long as it is helping the improvisers explore their physical reality in a dynamic fashion.
5.) Focus on the environment in general. It’s often the case that if we haven’t created dynamic elements of the environment during the first phase of our scene, these elements will never make it to the stage. You can’t realistically place a mimed table center stage, for example, if characters have clearly been walking through that area for the first half of the scene, so we need to get these formative objects in place quickly. Viola Spolin utilizes a three large objects define a space “rule” which is helpful in this regard. If you self-define as a verbal improviser, deliberately focusing on the environment can truly enable a whole new category of discoveries.
6.) Take a movement or dance class. I have never been an able sports player — I’ve always described myself as an “indoors boy” — and am subsequently much more innately comfortable with verbal rather than physical skills. But as part of my formal theatre training, and as necessitated by casting, I have taken dance classes (predominantly ballroom) and had to perform choreography quite often in musicals. I’m certainly no solo dancer, especially as I get older and further from those days, but it did imbue in me a certain physical bravery. If you are a “talking head” improviser, this probably won’t change noticeably after a well intentioned two-hour workshop: you need to step outside your comfort zone and put in the work. Whether it’s directly connected to improv and theatre, such as a jazz, mask, stage combat or contact improv class, or more generally focused, such as yoga, gymnastics or martial arts training, it’s likely to give you confidence and a movement vocabulary that can greatly elevate your craft. And you’re likely to meet other artists or people who aren’t improvisers which is a plus in and of itself as we can tend to get trapped into small improv clusters!
As I’ve mused on these commandments, the exceptions nearly always take a similar form, in that you should happily break the rule if it is the manifestation of a greater scenic game or the essence of a characterization choice. I believe it was at the Players Workshop of the Second City where I first encountered the concept of a “Chatterbox” scene or character, where one character spews out a stream of consciousness in response to almost any prompt from their teammates. This would be a good example of using a tendency towards verbosity as an asset rather than a burden, but we should probably be aware of the warning signal if such a character emerges surprisingly often in our scenes.
I continue to wage my own battle against my personal waffling demons, so I offer these suggestions as someone who still utilizes and needs these techniques in their own craft in order to improve. I’m also aware of the irony that my post on waffling is one of my longer entries of late! If you’ve any thoughts feel free to send me a (concise!) email or perhaps a link to an interpretive dance version of your question…
Connected Game: Sentences