“In creating, we rightly value the implicit over the explicit. The former is more subtle, more intelligent, more artistic, more worthy. Ambiguity is the soul of good work. It is more effective to show than to tell.”Bernard Sahlins, Days and Nights at the Second City. A Memoir, with Notes on Staging Review Theatre. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001. p.164
The relationship between ambiguity and specificity in improv is, needless-to-say, complex. If players are reluctant to name constituent scenic elements, it is highly likely that the scene will float in a nowhere limbo and may struggle to find a dynamic build and payoff. If, on the other hand, players name everything mercilessly, the scene can start to feel like a poor approximation of the human condition, lacking any sense of intrigue or nuance. In the context of this entry, I think it’s important to note that this first example would not be illustrative of desirable ambiguity, but rather a case of vague or wimping creation. Ambiguity for our purposes is not an absence of choice, but rather a delight in leaving room for playful mystery and subtle subtext. It is playing with an attitude of trust that every idea need not be spelled out immediately for your partner and audience alike, and that such a stance allows ideas to morph, develop and mature as the action unfolds.
I have started using the phrase Specific Ambiguity in my own work to describe this fruitful approach to slowly developing deep relationships and backstories in improvisational theatre. I think I coined this phrase, although as is the case with so many of the strategies that have been in my lexicon for a while, it’s also possible I subconsciously picked it up elsewhere. Utilizing ambiguity in this manner, particularly in expansive long-form pieces, can truly add depth and weight to stories and characters, providing the audience and players with intriguing questions and motivations that are worthy of our collective time and energy.
Player A is washing dishes in the sink with a stern energy as Player B arrives home, obviously late, to their shared apartment. Player B carefully removes their coat and takes a timid step towards Player A by the sink.
Player B: “Sorry I’m late…”
Player A: (softly) “Again.”
Player A pauses for a moment but does not look up from the dishes. Player B senses that this is not a typical exchange but proceeds regardless…
Player B: “You got my text?”
Player A: “Yeh, I got your texts.”
Player A’s final word and emphasis makes Player B reconsider what this moment is about…
A Further Consideration
It’s possible that Player B’s next line might now justify or explain the building tension, but there is also a dramatic value to letting this energy and mystery develop further. While the dialogue might feel sparse, the performers are clearly listening and observing each other carefully, and the emotional exchanges and details are rich. In many ways, the stage directions and subtext are carrying the weight and interest rather than the potentially pedestrian words. As an audience (and as players) we have an increasing list of questions that are steadily evolving. Why is Player A clearly so upset before B even arrives? Where does Player B work and why are they so frequently late home? Why does B mention a text singular, but A replies in the plural? What did these texts say, and are they the source of the tension?
As I was concocting the scene in my mind, I certainly had tentative specifics in mind, but if I was in this scene with another player, it’s more than likely that their read on the situation and resulting gifts could be quite different than my initial choices and assumptions. This is much of the joy of such an approach to scene making as if we’re patient and connected, we can tease out when and how important details make it to the stage.
Striking the Balance Between Richly Ambiguous and Problematically Vague
1.) Scenes generally thrive with context. There is a marked difference between having your audience wonder, “Why is there so much tension between this couple?”, as opposed to “Who are these people and why are they in a scene together?” In the above example, most would pick up on the kitchen location. There is room for debate about the relationship: I was intending a romantic or married couple, but as written the characters could certainly be sharing an apartment, or possibly members of a family. There is a familiarity between them, but the scene might need a few more beats for this to become clear. While the improvisational spirit is literally built on questioning and breaking rules, I would offer that ambiguity in our scenic work is often more helpful when it comes to the “why” of the scene as opposed to the “who,” “what,” or “where.” Certainly having an unidentified character lurking in the background of several scenes only to be revealed as a critical role later in a performance would be an effective use of this dynamic, but generally I think of ambiguity thriving in the domains of subtext, motivation and backstory.
2.) Be careful of naming or calling out the ambiguity. If a scene is becoming delightfully charged and dramatic with some gritty underlying unvoiced questions, be careful of prematurely or needlessly pointing out this fact (this is a particular trap if you are a new entering character). In the above scene, I could certainly ask Player A as the next line of dialogue, “You’re acting strange. What’s going on with you?” but this move could well puncture the developing game, especially if neither of us wanted (or were able) to put the pieces together just yet. As is the case with pretty much any scenic game in improv, once we explicitly name it, we have usually edited or ended it. This is not to suggest that ambiguity need become the central device of the scene; in fact, a little touch of this concept can go a long way. But if it has bubbled up as the major gift, then perhaps exercise some caution before you unwrap it!
3.) Conversely, be careful of digging yourself into an ambiguity pit. It can be such joyful fun to continue building a scene with rich ambiguity, but there is also a trap of adding so many vague elements that you, your scene partner(s) and the audience will struggle to keep them all sorted and connected. Consider exploring one color or avenue of ambiguity rather than a more scattershot approach. This way you can craft each step through your character’s point of view and objective, and that makes it less likely that the scene will collapse under the burden of too many competing and potentially incompatible unknowns (dare I say, think of the last few seasons of Lost.) To return to the above example, as Player A, I might begin the scene with the choice that I was the unintended recipient of a text from Player B that makes me question their motives and recent behaviors. Or, it can be helpful to frame it as a question, “Who did “B” intend that text for as it certainly wasn’t me?” I might have something tentatively more specific in mind, but a central choice or question will allow me to flow with and respond to the pitches from my scene partner. And I can just throw that unvoiced choice away when and if something else develops.
4.) Don’t be afraid to get specific when it’s needed. While you can certainly have an avalanche release of all your hidden thoughts and meanings in a CAD-like fashion if the elements are at your fingertips, the power of ambiguity is in its ability to build energy and intrigue. If the scene or relationship is losing dynamism and interest, don’t stubbornly remain in the land of ambiguity as this is likely a sign that the scene is looking for a new way to evolve. If the scene is struggling to find a next move, offering up at least a tentative piece of context for your prior actions will likely prove helpful. In a short-form modality, it’s foreseeable that most ambiguity will need to be resolved or at least acknowledged prior to the blackout if these characters and scenarios will not have another opportunity to breathe. In a long-form modality, there may often be room to leave your scene with that lovely ellipses feel that makes the audience crave for the characters to return to the stage again. However, if it’s late in the run, you’ll want to be careful that you haven’t left so much unresolved that your journey as a character lacks meaning or a pay off.
5.) Don’t mistake vagueness for ambiguity, please. As I noted in the definition, I think there is a big difference between making a rich choice with a tentative or partially conceived motivation informed from your character point of view, and making an unsupported, random or ill-defined choice from a place of fear or passivity. To return to Sahlins’ opening quote, ambiguity still contains an implicit meaning or choice, as opposed to an explicit un-nuanced statement or perhaps a offhand comment with little or no intention on the part of the improviser. (Curve balls are perhaps an exception to this rule and are discussed in a later entry). Helpful ambiguity is still purposeful, well-crafted and connected to the needs and wants of our characters. It is informed by the known parameters and context of the world that we have created together onstage. Such choices are still deliberate choices and not merely improvisational placeholders awaiting others to provide details.
While I think the concept of ambiguity is relatively accessible, its delicate application can create challenges. As improvisers, we can delight in seeing something exciting unfold on stage but may not have the patience or fortitude to allow it to unfold at its own pace. Fast-paced improv environments, in particular, can almost prove caustic to a more gentle evolving scenic approach if we’re not careful. But I’d offer the rewards of specific ambiguity are manifold, and that this technique is a concrete way of building trust and connection with our audiences as such an approach, at its core, values their ability to piece together the breadcrumbs in real time alongside the performers they are watching on the stage.
Connected Game: Conscience