“A” is for “Active Listening”

“Improvisation’s spontaneous nature taxes the basic skills of listening and communicating. It demands that individuals give their full concentration and attention to the moment, rather than being preoccupied by what happened, or what could happen.”

Mary Crossan, “Improvise to Innovate.” Ivey Business Quarterly 62.1 (Autumn 1997): 36(7).


Active Listening is a term often used in improv to denote a deep commitment to focused communication. One can listen passively, assuming that you have gathered the gist of your partner’s comment or argument, while your mind wanders and starts to formulate your response or next move, or perhaps just wanders in general to life issues and decisions. Active listening, on the other hand, seeks to mine the deeper nuances, intentions, and gifts of each speech act, understanding that in the world of improv theatre, no choice or clue should be needlessly overlooked or wasted.

While we refer to this intense and deliberate heightened presence in the given moment as “listening,” it would be misleading to consider it as merely an aural skill. In the scripted tradition, it’s possible (though equally in poor form) to await our designated cue line somewhat passively, so that we can respond when it’s our turn with the next line of text. A strong performer will undoubtedly make nuanced adjustments based on small changes in the antecedent actions each evening, but were they to tune out for a moment, as long as they hear the end of their cue line, the scene can still move forward with some success. In the improvisational tradition, tuning out for even a few seconds can completely derail the momentum and direction of the scene and a failure to discern the subtle intentions of your partners can allow exciting potentials to dissipate into the sea of missed opportunities. As Crossan notes above, there is no room for preoccupation on the improv stage. After all, how can one truly embrace and accept an offer if it was never really received in the first place?

Elements for the Active Listener to Consider

As we all strive to become better and more engaged listeners in our work, here are some facets of our active listening to embrace:

1.) Consider your partner’s emotional truth. On a simple level, active listening embraces not just what is being said, but also how it is being said. If there is something about your partner’s delivery that is unexpected, passionate, or perhaps even suspicious, recognizing this reality is probably at least as important as hearing the specific words of their dialogue. There may be a dissonance between the line and its delivery, whether the improviser intended this or not. “You’re home early” might be accompanied with unfettered joy, suggesting a pleasant and welcome surprise. Or there may be a hesitance or quality that suggests the surprise was less-than-pleasant. While the improviser may elect not to immediately name or call out this perceived emotional truth, they would be remiss not to recognize and process it.

2.) Subtext will often open more doors than text. Yes, we should certainly listen closely to the text that unfolds in our scene work, but the hidden meanings being communicated under the dialogue as subtext will nearly always provide richer opportunities. If these undertones are neglected or ignored, we are increasing exponentially the difficulty of the path ahead. “I love you” can mean a multitude of different things in a scene, and it’s important to comprehend whether a partner is confessing or affirming love, or perhaps setting the stage for an apology after disappointing you, or even laying the ground for a difficult breakup. If you actively seek and receive this deeper meaning, you are more able to make choices that can further heighten and embrace your partner’s point of view.

3.) Don’t neglect body language. Similarly, your scene partners are likely communicating a great deal even when they are not engaging in dialogue, or further complicating their meaning by the way it’s framed with their physical choices. Are they keeping their distance even if their words are seemingly loving and friendly? Are they using the environment or an activity to avoid you, or finding ways to put themselves in your path? Again, such choices may often not be conscious or deliberate on the part of your fellow players, but body language and staging patterns are none-the-less being received and translated by the audience, so we’d be foolish not do show the same care in our own perceptions.

4.) And then there are the eyes. There will be times when organic staging may not allow you to seek a strong connection through eye contact with your scene partners, but at the very least find moments to check in with them as the scene unfolds. Emotional, subtextual, and body language choices are all amplified through strong eye contact and there are nuances that are difficult to communicate any other way. Some improvisers can struggle with honest eye contact: it certainly exposes you as a player and requires comfort with being open and vulnerable. This can be a challenging habit to break, but an inability to connect this way with others on stage is likely diminishing your onstage relationships whether you want it to or not as your improviser habit and character manners will become conflated.

5.) Active listening isn’t limited to the stage. Remember that you never know when you’ll be needed in an improv scene and so we cannot passively rest on our laurels when we’re in the wings awaiting our turn. Position yourself in such a way that you can receive as much of the onstage subtlety as possible. (On my home campus, I’ll often encourage players to crouch downstage of the scene so that they don’t miss anything.) If you’re actively listening offstage, this also equips you to assist if an onstage player may have had their back turned at an inopportune moment or missed a scenic choice that is clearly important or full of promise. I’d also offer that active listening is equally important when we’re all offstage discussing or debriefing a scene. If we’re checking in about a moment of onstage tension or a potential breach of our company’s goals or performance parameters, it would behoove us to make sure we are accurately understanding the feelings and reactions of our fellow players.

Final Thought

Students who cross-over from scripted to improv work with me will often comment that they find improvisational theatre considerably more tiring (as well as invigorating, challenging, rewarding, and a whole other host of adjectives!) We don’t have “scenes off” in the improv world where we can relax in the greenroom and catch up on a little reading. The need to actively listen on the improv stage is essential, consuming, and unforgiving. This concept reminds us that we need to rigorously stay in the moment, avoid planning ahead, connect fully with those with whom we share the stage, and to joyfully assume the role of a detective, searching for latent clues in the simplest of actions or choices made by our fellow players.

Related Entries: Emotional Truth, Obvious, Postmortem, Presence, Subtext Antonyms: Blocking, Erasure Synonyms: Accepting

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2020 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Beneath the Line

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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