Spolin’s definition of desirable Non-acting: “Involving one’s self with a focus; detachment; a working approach to all the problems of the theater; keeping one’s personal feelings private; learning to act through ‘non-acting’; showing, not telling; ‘Stop Acting!’”Viola Spolin, Theatre Games for the Lone Actor: A Handbook. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2001. p.163-164
Spolin’s opening quote is admittedly a little jumbled as it is really a loose list combining multiple insights worthy of unpacking. Here I’m primarily interested in the final section that addresses the concept of Showing rather than telling – a common improv (and theatrical) adage. To show on stage is to allow ideas and offers to become revealed through behavior and action. Such an approach invites a richer and more nuanced style of play and facilitates discovery. This contrasts with telling which over-relies on language to state or describe scenic contributions. Telling encapsulates a performative instinct that frequently results in cartooning or two-dimensional scene work.
As many improv traditions take full advantage of imaginative and imaginary scenic elements, telling can present a particular temptation in our efforts to clearly define our surroundings and given circumstances. But we need not chose between a false dichotomy of “clear” telling or “opaque” showing as clarity and precision can also be the domain of improvisers who thoughtfully show their choices.
Player A and B begin a scene based on the audience suggestion of a “hot air balloon ride…”
Show Your Choice By…
In the spirit of this advice, my examples come first:
1.) Doing something rather than considering it
Player A extends their arm to B who uses it as leverage to leap over and into the balloon basket. A unties an anchor rope before B returns the favor and they both find themselves gently ascending, laughing all the while.
Player A: (standing) “Well, I think we’ve got everything for our hot air balloon ride. Do you want to do one more safety check?”
One definition of theatrical play that whispers in my ear as I write this is that theatre is a sequential list of (generally related and intensifying) actions. Yes, there are undoubtedly branches of the art that also highly prioritize thought and theory – George Bernard Shaw springs to mind with his epic stage direction notes – but there’s a reason we use the verbiage dramatic action to describe the moves in a play. These actions shouldn’t be mistaken for stage business or activity, although they can at times be synonymous, but rather tactics that strive to get characters one step closer to what they want or need.
2.) Experiencing something rather than describing it
As Player A and B feel the balloon slowly rise from its previously tethered perch, they clutch each others’ hand with shear delight. Player A spontaneously dances a little happy jig that adds to B’s amusement as their gaze slowly moves to the scenery around them.
Player B: (standing, but now theoretically in a balloon) “Our balloon is taking off. You can see everything gradually getting smaller…”
While there are foreseeable improv situations where some well-timed description may help get everyone on the same page, be cautious when this instinct is used in lieu of committing fully to the current experience. Allowing the audience to witness the characters’ awe and excitement will invariably prove more engaging than merely hearing an all-too-often dispassionate narration or dose of cartooning. Experiencing instead of describing also unlocks the powerful improv tools of silence, subtext, and ambiguity.
3.) Creating something rather than pontificating about it
Player B reaches into a picnic basket that they’d previously secretly stowed in the balloon, revealing a large bottle of champagne and two flutes. They meticulously pop the cork while A’s attention is distracted by controlling the burner. Upon hearing the champagne popping, B turns with a smile and is greeted with a half-filled glass.
Player A: (still standing but now apparently in a balloon and a little hungry) “It’s a shame we didn’t pack any food. That would have made this extra special.”
The second example could well result in a bracing scene about our couple becoming stranded without any resources, but more often such language provides an unnecessary distraction from just crafting cogent props and scenic elements that can then add a myriad of nuances and possibilities. Does the popping cork ultimately puncture the balloon, or could the resulting champagne intoxication throw the couple off their predetermined course? Or, frankly, does just the act of sharing the drink simply but beautifully reveal and heighten the love and connection? Creating an array of scenic pieces (and then not talking incessantly about them) can go a long way towards encouraging a “showing” attitude.
4.) Feeling something rather than announcing it
The couple laughs and smiles broadly as they ritualistically interlock their arms to enjoy the champagne toast. Captured in the moment, A throws the now empty champagne flute off the side of the balloon basket. Without skipping a step, Player B mirrors the gesture as their eyes meet. The laughter transforms to passion as they seize each other in a loving embrace.
Player B: (standing some more in that balloon basket but now a little hungry and happy, but speaking nonetheless without conviction) “I love balloon rides.”
A tendency to “tell” is often further problematized by an equal tendency to shy away from emotional honesty and earned passion. Yes, our players can say “I love balloon rides” but this will prove vastly inferior to feeling and embodying this choice. This advice holds even more wisdom when it comes to assertions of “I love you.” Announcing our emotions can reveal a performer’s anxiousness or discomfort with assuming the broad range of human experience, but such declarations will frequently call into question the very veracity of the utterance if these powerful words are not accompanied by an earnt connection and heartfelt depth.
An added advantage to adopting a “showing” improvisational stance is that you can essentially double the communicative potentials of your scene work. When our acting and subtextual choices enrich the greater environment and core relationships, our dialogue can now explore other ideas and dynamics or introduce fruitful tensions and contradictions. In this manner, while the behavior of our hot air ballooners expresses affection and adoration to each other, the language could now show disdain for all the rest of humanity and the less fortunate scattered below them as they engage in their luxurious assent – or a myriad of other satiric or whimsical ideas.
See my earlier post on cartooning here for related tips on “Bringing That Third Dimension to Your Scene Work.”
Connected Game: In A, With A, While A…