“Theatre is a bridge between the nonverbal and the literary arts.”Jonathan Fox, Acts of Service. Spontaneity, Commitment, Tradition in the Nonscripted Theatre. New Paltz, NY: Tusitala Publishing, 1994. p.190
In ninety-nine out of a hundred situations Telling on the improv stage will prove inferior to its antitheses showing. To tell announces or describes a choice in lieu of committing to it with all your physical, emotional, and subtextual being. Improvisers who favor telling tend to esteem more intellectual styles of play and might use verbal prowess to maintain distance from their characters and the worlds that they populate. (You can explore more perceived double-edged “benefits” of this tendency in my analysis of commenting here.) Improvisers comfortable with a showing approach contrarily utilize their whole selves more freely, revealing characters and stories through behavior and action as well as words. We all have our own patterns and preferences as performers so it’s no easy task to move from one column to the other, but every journey starts with a step. My earlier musing on Showing provides some pointers to help you put on your walking shoes.
A couple sit on their porch swing. They converse with an unintentional deadpan quality.
Player A: “It’s raining.”
Player B: “That dog is scrounging through the garbage, again.”
Player A: “Someone needs to do something about that.”
Player B: “It makes me livid.”
Player A: “I’m thirsty.”
Player B: “The rain does that to you…”
Tell Me About It
As a completely deadpan and exceptional scene our couple could add delightful variety to a performance. As a stylistic norm, however, frequent appearances of such chill demeanors will cause stakes, momentum, and investment to plummet. Adding at least some showing to your largely telling scene will undoubtedly deepen and sharpen the work. (See my related entry here for examples.)
While most schools of improv elevate showing in general (a stance I also hold) there are moments when telling can get improvisers out of a pickle or enhance the work in other ways. So here are some “one out of a hundred” thoughtful exceptions to a common improv “rule.”
1.) Speaking your truth. Especially if onstage communication has become strained or ineffective – players are talking all over each other or oblivious to the ramifications of their choices – showing can prove ill-equipped to resolve issues in a timely fashion. In reality, fellow players have probably been showing their needs or discomfort for a while, only to have it go unnoticed. In these moments, explicitly telling your teammates what you’re experiencing or require is more than appropriate. This is the rationale behind the tradition of speaking your truth or calling it onstage. If you’re feeling nautious (as the improviser, not the character) and need to make a hasty departure from the stage, telling will get the job done clearly (as opposed to risking showing more than you had intended).
Player A: “In truth, mom, I’ve got to go to my room and I probably won’t be back…”
2.) Carving a path. Immense delight can stem from volleys of initially disparate choices all accidentally hitting the stage at once; and, in fact, many games like Statues and Scene From Music are built on this concept, requiring players to creatively resolve these contradictions in real time much to the joy of the audience. Cumulative justifying that puts random elements together creatively stands as the optimal path, but there are moments where conflicting choices merely compound confusion rather than inspire spontaneity. If you’re many scenes into a narrative long-form and previously widely accepted “facts” are in clumsy peril, or disagreement between the improvisers stalls any potential action between the characters, then telling can become your friend. A kind but unambiguous statement carves a unified way forward by getting everyone on the same page. You do need to be informed and cautious: a misguided player pushing for their perception of the given circumstances in spite of their obliviousness that the rest of the ensemble are in full agreement to the contrary will only worsen chaos by stubbornly asserting an unhelpful inconsistency. This is doubly so as I believe a named reality should take precedence over an implied one: my partner might have intended to be washing dishes but if I (in good faith or even mischievously) see this as operating a photocopier then the scene is now in the office. But if you’re in possession of critical knowledge or a finesseful move that connects the scattered dots, then by all means tell your scene partners.
Player A: “Alright class, just a few moments more putting the finishing touches on your individual projects and then it’s time for our guest speaker and judge…”
3.) Painting the picture. And then telling can be integral to your style or a particular production, often taking the form of narration or scene painting. It’s difficult in many cases to implicitly show unseen environmental elements or give nuance to imagined set pieces that aren’t within reach. Ideally, a little telling under these circumstances will then become supported by subsequently showing the effect and significance of the offered additions. One could argue that if narrated descriptions don’t ultimately influence the mood, style, meaning, or action that these choices have either been blocked or weren’t serving their intended purpose. It’s helpful to keep in mind, then, that an over abundance of described offers – the equivalent to waffling – won’t set teammates up for success in this regard as it decreases the likelihood that the plethora of shelved details will resurface. But especially in “design poor” venues, descriptive telling can truly honor the transformative powers of improv by reinventing the same modest stage again and again.
Player A: (scene painting) “A wall-sized mirror looms in the estate’s grand foyer demanding that all who enter must face their comparative insignificance…”
4.) Sealing the deal. Finally, a little telling can serve as a powerful and successful scenic punctuation. Generally naming the game currently underway is a big improv no-no: “Oh, I see, everyone is making clever puns with different world capitals…” These moves invariably and awkwardly release the air out of the game, thereby suffocating the very dynamic that was providing joy. But there are carefully directed moments when upending, inverting, or exploding the current scenic trajectory can effectively stick the landing. This is the basic idea behind a “rug pull” or surprise button, quick blackout, or edit. Perhaps the characters that have been plotting their big escape suddenly fall limp as the scene climaxes with a child turning on their playroom light, revealing the characters as anthromorphic toys (courtesy of Toy Story). Explicit clarity is critical in these moments if they are to benefit from the advantage of concisely etched surprise. While it’s possible to show such a move in some situations, telling typically prevents any uncertainty or player confusion, which can result in stepping on the intended tilt.
After a board room scene nears its ending that was replete with unexpected and inappropriate behavior amongst the apparently esteemed business leaders, Player A enters…
Player A: “Thanks for being so patient, kids. I can take you back to the play center now where your parents can pick you up…”
As a safety valve, descriptive tool, and dynamic reveal, telling can serve your improv needs successfully. As an evasive tactic to keep you detached and separated from your choices and fellow players, telling will hamstring your journey as an improviser and character.
Connected Game: Soundtrack