“V” is for “Verbal Skills”

“Without a set, just a back wall with two doors, without costumes, with just words and our great actors, there is pure theatre magic on that stage.”

Bernard Sahlins, Days and Nights at the Second City. A Memoir, with Notes on Staging Review Theatre. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001. p.41


Unless you’re contributing in a musical or design capacity, our onstage improv offers essentially consist of physicality, Verbal Skills, or (ideally) a rich combination of these two components. How we vocalize our choices as characters can reveal hidden meanings, magnify dramatic tensions, increase the emotional stakes and connections, or – when things aren’t going so well – obfuscate our intent and frustrate our scene partners and the audience. Offers that cannot be heard or comprehended beyond a surface level cannot be fully accepted and justified. Ironically, while many improv styles of play over-emphasize the spoken word in performance, problematically fewer pay equal attention to polishing and expanding the very verbal skills on which they rely so heavily.


Two rather nervous improvisers begin a scene in the upstage corner of the stage based on the suggestion of “embarrassment.” They sit down and begin to quietly talk about an issue of consequence. The scene may have been very poignant and moving, but sadly, no one will ever know as the majority of the dialogue was incomprehensible...

V Verbal V’s

1.) Volume. In smaller improv venues a more filmic vocal style might pass muster but even then when you add some soundtrack enhancement, a little accidental over-talking or upstaging, and (hopefully) some audience reactions, suddenly your realistic mumbled dialogue disappears beneath the everyday din. When we discuss appropriate onstage volume this obviously doesn’t mean bombastically yelling our dialogue regardless of the scenic needs – overtly loud improvisers can strip the story of any nuance and jar the nerves – but as I discuss here, effective onstage dialogue does require consciously avoiding falling into the pitfalls of unsupported speech. There’s a reason that the term “stage whisper” exists as even a whisper in the theatre is magnified so that its content is known to all in attendance: for this particular device performers tend to add a breathiness rather than dramatically subtract volume. If you’re fortunate enough to play in spaces with microphones and sound technicians, even here under-energized vocals will create other issues, diminishing the onstage attack that is so crucially needed to create and shape action. Low volume usually reflects low stakes, urgency, commitment, and emotional potency, so in addition to staying open (letting the audience see your face) and coming downstage (rather than hiding against the back wall) also increase the amplitude in one or more of these aforementioned areas.

2.) Vocabulary. A second “v” to consider on the stage is our vocabulary. As improvisers may be called upon to play a multitude of different characters, it would naturally follow that all of these personae wouldn’t utilize language in exactly the same way. A five-year-old is unlikely to wield the same vocabulary and speech patterns as an octogenarian crossword champion (although a deliberate inversion of these expectations would certainly craft amusing results too!) It can prove helpful as an improviser to practice a collector’s attitude towards language, consciously seeking out unfamiliar words to expand your knowledge base so you have richer options at your disposal when the opportunity arises. A specific word choice, after all, communicates just as much as the way in which it is delivered. While rude, annoying, and persnickety are loosely synonyms, the tone and feeling of each word are quite unique and likely to inform or inspire different characters and dynamics. When we incline ourselves towards using our language deliberately, we also reduce the likelihood of “vague-prov” and empty dialogue that postpones or stalls the action. This is of particular import when we leap into stylistic pieces that demand a more robust verbal presence that starkly contrasts with our daily idiom: a Shakespearean scene without any Elizabethan flair or wordplay probably won’t land well. If you’re looking for an accessible starting point, assuming a fearless expert approach (outlined here) with your verbal work provides one helpful pathway to this level of certitude and colorful finesse.

3.) Variety. I’ve briefly discussed the potentials of applying Laban movement qualities to our physical work here in order to introduce a wider array of character traits and options; this same philosophy can definitely reap similar rewards with our verbal choices. Sometimes, embracing a seemingly random pattern or style at the top of the scene is enough to inspire a new character perspective or presence. If you’re usually effusive with your language, explore a sparse vocal style where every word matters. Perhaps your norm is rapid-fire parlays, or leaning heavily into your alto speaking range, or your have your own natural speech rhythms or patterns that, left to their own devices, typically infuse most of your characters. Playfully switching up just one of these areas will bring freshness and variety to your work. Once you have settled in on the basic communicative style of your character, it’s equally important to find variety within their speech acts. Sure, you might get away with doing the same thing in slightly different ways for a short-form scene, but if your creations are to have depth and invite sustained interest they will benefit greatly from pursuing a plethora of tactics. When the low-talker suddenly erupts, or the reserved character reveals their verbal acumen, or a naïve child unexpectedly utters wisdom beyond their years, such moments stand out as prior patterns have been disrupted in pleasing ways. Alternatively, when a character uses the same vocal tool again and again and again, it can lose its charm and effectiveness easily: how many clever sketches have you seen when the “bit” failed to evolve and the thing that once gave you joy eventually grated on your last nerve?

4.) Voracity. One potential meaning of voracity is a “hunger,” which works nearly as well as the intended meaning here, which is displaying a general eagerness in your work or pursuit. Language without passion soon becomes empty rhetoric – passive sounds perhaps intended to persuade that ultimately have little sway on the speaker or audience. When our characters (and the improvisers inhabiting them) lack voracity – that hunger or consuming need – ineffective verbal choices can quickly follow. A dispassionate character is less likely to fill the acoustic space, pursue every nuanced tactic available to them, or infuse their language with specificity and emotion. A powerful objective, on the other hand, coupled with a sense of true hunger or desire, fuels the scenic action as characters emphatically chase their goals and ambitions. Players who routinely struggle with volume onstage benefit from exploring passions worthy of their time as this increased power essentially demands a greater vocal presence. Improvisers who habitually conflate text and subtext – commenting on the action or announcing their emotions without conviction or connection – can similarly profit from exploring their driving passions in new and complex ways. At the end of the day, if our characters don’t actively and painfully want on the stage, then all the beautiful and well-chosen language in the world won’t amount to much.

5.) Verisimilitude. My final “v’ is verisimilitude, a fancy term used often in scripted performance devoted to realism that refers to faithfully honoring our source material and presenting the world with an air of authenticity and familiarity. If you’re hoping to expand your verbal storehouse, you really need to look no further than the world around you for an abundance of potential case studies and sources of inspiration. Observing others’ speech patterns, tempos, and idiosyncrasies and then playfully applying them to your own stage work can provide a grounded anchor for new characterizations. Parodic traditions rely on such an approach of recreating the verbal tells of recognizable celebrities and politicians. But the same tool can be applied more gently as well, allowing observed vocal quirks to enrich your own verbal repertoire. Just as authors are encouraged to “write what they know,” improvisers can gain effortless details by “improvising what (or who) they know.” Finding inspiration from that memorable relative can be enough to level up your verbal game. On one end of the spectrum, the resulting work may read as impersonation (and there’s nothing wrong with that). When applied more subtly, you may unlock whole new facets of yourself. As you playfully persue verisimilitude one does have to wrestle with issues of representation and stereotyping, especially if you are wearing a dialect or regionalism as the totality of your character with little effort to incorporate empathy, connection, or integrity. Such choices when they are punching up at powerful public figures feel very different than when they are punching down at marginalized groups or demographics absent from your stage or company.

Final Thought

When we care about what we say and how we say it, it’s more likely that others will care too. Offers not only consist of the what or raw content but also the how. Both parts are equally codependent on the other for meaning to be forged powerfully on the improv stage.

Related Entries: Experts, Obvious, Physicality, Rhyme, Talking Heads Antonyms: Waffling. Wimping Synonyms: Vocabulary

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Alphabet Game

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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