“To keep his players open and responsive to the present, he uses Spolin games. To keep the intellect out of the games, Sills makes his students talk and move in slow motion or speak in gibberish in the hope that they can duck their intellects and stay focused in the present.”Describing Paul Sills with the Compass Players, William N. Stavru, Second City and Story Theater Founder. 28 Oct. 2000.
In addition to serving as an important technique for a subset of short-form improv games, Gibberish sharpens many skills in the improviser’s tool belt. Ironically, by utilizing this nonsensical language that is made up by players on the spot, communication and presence can actually improve in our scene work. In addition to Sills’ observations above, Keith Johnstone lists a smattering of these benefits in his Impro for Storytellers: they include stronger listening skills, a heightened ability to be changed by what your partner says to you, and a more refined sense of physical or non-verbal communication. It can be tempting to dismiss the use of gibberish as a gimmicky conceit that primarily serves as a short-form handle, but as Johnstone and Stavru remind us, there is a deeper training value to be gleaned from exploring this approach to language on stage as well.
Player A assumes a professorial demeanor and steps before the assembled students. They point towards a projector screen and begin…
Player A: “Parleavy qualahte. Gashumba dow franeetee powlay na tapitee.”
A student, Player B, raises their hand and gets the professor’s attention.
Player A: (pointing to the student) “Ba? Twaylee?”
Player B: (sighing and heavily confused) “Dabak zeshie kalumbo!”
The rest of the class snickers. The professor calms them with a gesture.
Player A: (reassuringly) “Twaylee, panefee laht noomba na tapitee.”
With a gesture the professor invites Player B (“Twaylee”) to come and join them by the projection screen (“tapitee”)…
Bableshing Kadool Galoney (Strengthening Your Gibberish)
As you explore gibberish in your scenic work and training, here are some pointers to keep in mind.
1.) Make sure you’re speaking the same language. I appreciate the seeming absurdity of this subtitle but gibberish is not a “set” language that recurs from scene to scene. Rather, it is a collaboratively evolving and scene specific form of communication. Within any given scene, then, characters should be speaking the same gibberish language – or dialect if you will – rather than their own predetermined variant that they brought with them individually before the scene even began. With the notable exception of scenes in which groups of characters are foreign to each other and therefore deliberately speaking gibberish that is not understood by all of their scene partners (a delightful scenic premise) characters who are speaking the same language should sound similar to one another. I think most of us have a default set of sounds that we tend to go to when we’re playing a gibberish scene, but if we’re really committed to connecting to our partners, these sounds should start to unify and mirror each other. To this end…
2.) Repeat, repeat, repeat. Language serves as language because it utilizes repetition to create shared meaning. While gibberish can be defined as a nonsensical language – that is, a verbal form of communication distinct from the 6,500 or so languages currently in use – it is a language none-the-less and should endeavor to replicate the basic systems and structures of language. First and foremost amongst these are repetition. Characters should echo the sounds and words that their scene partners establish. It’s particularly helpful and effective to assign and reuse randomly created gibberish words for important names, nouns and features of the scene. If a character’s name becomes “Kazumae,” it gives great joy to hear this used more than once and to see the assigned character respond or enter appropriately. Be mindful not to just blindly repeat everything that others have said or no particular words or phrases will stand out as important, but strategic recycling serves as a relatively simple device that pays disproportionate dividends.
3.) Engage your whole body. A pitfall of gibberish scenes and exercises is to craft essentially talking head dynamics with players drolly uttering nonsensical language. As English (or your national tongue) has been stripped away, it becomes increasingly critical to use the other forms of communication at your disposal such as body language, intonation and subtext. Gibberish alone without these elements is unlikely to offer much to your scene partners or the audience. Use your language sparingly and carefully, making sure that your are fully physically engaged. If you’re not mindful this can become pantomimic or resemble a game of charades which strikes me as overshooting the target a little. Keep in mind that in the fictional world of the play your fellow characters onstage actually understand what you are saying even if the actor behind the mask may not. But if you’re prone to a rather stationary style of performance, gibberish work invites – if not demands – that you now act from the neck down as well using gestures, staging and activity to further heighten and illustrate your intent.
4.) Avoid Charlie Brown-ing. Some actors will tend to slip into a “wah wah wah” style of gibberish that I refer to as Charlie Brown-ing as it resembles the mumbling of the often unseen adults in the Peanuts world. Gibberish can certainly feel alienating and scary when you make your first effort to construct a whole new language soundscape and many improvisers go through a stage of almost swallowing their own verbal offers. Gently nudge players away from this trap. On the one hand, it is largely a manifestation of fear and wimping: “I don’t know how to say what I want to say so I’ll just minimize my vocalizations.” On the other hand, it further (and drastically) reduces the likelihood that anything of value will be communicated. Savor each peculiar word that you utter, making each and every one of the utmost import. Use the vowels to deepen and express your character’s emotions and subtext. Attack your consonants to shape your intentions and objectives. When gibberish devolves into “wah wah wah” all of these rich potentials are lost along with the ability to just say what you want in your native language.
5.) Follow typical speaking etiquette. Another trap that tends to surface in early gibberish explorations is that the more general societal rules of communication can disappear. First and foremost amongst these is that people don’t typically talk all over each other (and do so even less on a theatrical stage.) Know who is the speaker in focus at any given moment and make sure that you let them finish their thought; or, if you do interrupt a fellow player, that doing so is deliberate and tactical. Generous and clear focus gives and takes are critical for the success of a gibberish scene. As a general rule of thumb I’d also advise to talk less than you might usually in a scene in terms of actual word count, and seek to say more than you might usually with your expressions, reactions and other non-verbal forms of communication. Effusive gibberish, run-on sentences and talking over one another are no more laudable in a gibberish scene than they are in a traditional vignette and are often a symptom of what I would call “empty speech” where characters are making sounds but there is little true meaning or thought behind them.
As is the case with all skills in the improv arsenal, the only guaranteed way to build greater comfort and “success” with gibberish is to explore the dynamic with greater frequency and fearlessness. If you are more inclined towards word play and verbose characters, gibberish can feel very much like an Achilles’ heel asking you to abandon those parts of your craft that provide you safety and comfort in order to explore an alien landscape of physicality, subtext and emotion. Lean into the initial discomfort, and graciously accept this challenge and all the subsequent gifts it will bestow.
Connected Game: Subtitles