“T” is for “Talking Heads”

“Constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating.”

Charlie Kaufman, Screenwriter in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Definition

Talking Heads refers to the improvisational plague of performers essentially only acting from the neck up (not the highly physical 1970s rock band of the same name). Whether sitting or standing, these players – and the scenes they populate – are largely intellectual affairs devoid of dynamic staging, physicality, and subtext-infused body language. Although such players are typically squarely focused on their language (and wit), their resulting creations that lack embodied presence stop making sense on a deeper level as they fail to capture the electricity and complexity of theatricalized human behavior. The habit of talking heads often appears with its improv relatives, commenting, telling, and sticky feet.

Example

Player A, a nervous big retail store employee, enters their supervisor’s office…

Player A: “Thanks for seeing me, Travis.”

Player B: (looking up from their desk) “Have a seat, Mark. What did you want to talk about?”

Player A: “I’ve been working here for three years now…”

Both characters continue to sit and talk about what’s on Mark’s mind, and then they sit and talk some more…

Escaping the Road to Nowhere

1.) Add an activity. It’s possible to achieve sound scenic results while just chatting, but ignoring physicality invariably means missing opportunities to deepen and complicate your storytelling efforts. Adding almost any activity – no matter how mundane it might strike you at first – allows characters to now show rather than tell their subtext and choices. Burning down the house of the manager while asking for a raise would certainly elevate the heat, but even a simpler choice like Player B watering their office plants is enough to get someone out of their chair. And what begins as a perfunctory activity can evolve into more pointed action or a means for creating tension or irony. If B displays enormous care for their plants while showing entrenched indifference towards their workforce, the scene now has upped its game, perhaps without even altering a single line of dialogue.

Player A: “Thanks for seeing me, Travis.”

Player B: (standing with a clip board) “No worries, we’ll just have to chat on the move as there’s an inventory issue in the warehouse…”

2.) Add environment. One of the unintended consequences of talking heads scenes is that once the characters become immovable the world around them quickly evaporates leaving few details intact save the two chairs or small ill-defined square on which the players are passively standing. If you find yourself in an overused or basic location – such as our anonymous office above – strive to add unique details. Is it so cluttered that you can’t sit down or get comfortable? Does the boss have the air conditioning set so low that you can’t help but shiver and have to yell to be heard above the constant white noise? Or even better, take me to the river, a bustling marketplace, or the hushed back shelves of a research library. Open new doors by having your everyday conversation in an exceptional locale (or everyday locale with an exceptional feature).

Player A: “Thanks for seeing me, Travis.”

Player B hands their employee a large pile of sensitive tax documents that are apparently in tall piles on the floor.

Player B: “Start shredding our filings for 2010 and I’ll do the same for the current year. Now, how can I help you…?

3.) Add heat. Talking head scenes may display patience and active listening but are tempted to linger in stasis for the majority of the “action” as players search for (and often miss) the choice ripe for investigation. Rather than assume each interaction begins in a perfect world, take the joyful risk of offering up (or recognizing) an off-kilter story element. This has the added bonus of providing a “starting in the middle” sense of energy and urgency: if we know we want the scene to result in some dramatic fire why begin it with assembling the kindling when we have the option of benefiting from using a fire pit that already has some flickering flames? Incessant talking scenes tend to actually reduce the likelihood of heat if the players aren’t extremely cognizant. If you find yourself about to enter a predictable exchange unlikely to easily yield new options, consider adding an “again” endowment as this can at least raise the stakes of this particular encounter. If Mark always comes into the office with requests, there’s now some backstory to encourage stronger emotions and actions.

Player A: “Thanks for seeing me, Travis.”

Player B: (standing awkwardly) “HR has asked me to keep the door open when we meet from now on to prevent further misunderstandings… So, how can I help you, Mr. Gordon?”

Player A: “Thanks for seeing me, Travis.”

4.) Add context. Providing activity, environment, and heat are all subsets of the greater tool of refining context. Dull content will remain uninspiring if it is allowed to play out under dull circumstances. Well selected and executed framing choices can do much to alleviate and break passive patterns, thereby encouraging characters to explore the potentials with their whole physical and emotional selves. A request for a raise is a fine starting point but can quickly benefit from creative answers to the question of “why does this scene need to happen now?” If the answer elevates but is in keeping with our known reality, the scene gains heightening stakes and urgency. Perhaps Player A’s significant other just lost their job, or they are expecting an addition to the family. Hopefully, these enhanced motivations can prod the character to a wider array of tactics. When the answer to the suggested riddle above questions, upturns, or surprisingly reframes the otherwise familiar scene, the result can create delightfully satiric or deliberately jarring results. Player B could be Player A’s significant other, or the zombie apocalypse could have a hoard of slippery people banging on the store’s front door threatening to decrease the size of A’s family (but corporate policy still won’t budge for hazard pay).

Mark continues to hold his “unionize now!” sign ahigh as co-workers loudly chant the same refrain from the picket line outside of Player B’s office window.

Player B: (getting up from behind their desk and trying in vain to block out the chanting) “How can I help you?”

Final Thought

I would speculate that a talking heads dynamic often surfaces as a side effect of players’ misplaced efforts to craft “realistic” or subtle scene work that resembles (at least in theory) what they have seen on screen. But the stage is a different performance beast and does not have the benefit of camera angles, extreme close ups, and refined editing to communicate the smallest choice or thought process to the audience. For the stage to capture the full wealth of this wild, wild life, talking heads scenes need the additional gifts that robust staging, elevated stakes, and thoughtful context can offer.

Related Entries: Environment, Stakes, Sticky Feet, Telling Antonyms: Physicality, Stage Picture Synonyms: Waffling

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

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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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