Updated: Jul 18, 2020
Ask any improviser what the number-one, fundamental improv skill is, and they're likely to say, "Listening."
And it's possibly the hardest to put into practice.
When the adrenaline is pumping, and you're under pressure, it can be the first thing to go. Faced with an excited crowd, you and your team all full of nervous energy, feet pacing like drunk pigeons - all those lessons, all those good intentions, can fly out the window. And suddenly your mouth is running away from your ears.
You're shooting, and reloading. You said your thing, and before your scene partner can respond, you're already off, and firing again. All guns blazing! You haven't listened to a word they said.
It gets frustrating for your scene partner, and it must be frustrating when it happens to you.
I read all sorts of improv chat forums online, for teachers and students alike, and there’s constant questions like, "What improv exercises are best to get students to listen?" What can I do to listen more on stage?"
There’s the fairly standard exercises, such as: ‘counting to 5 in your head before you can speak again’, or ‘repeating aloud what your partner just said’. These are fine for Beginners, to introduce the principle at least, but at the end of the day, the improviser's whole mind-set needs to be tuned-in and set-high to listening-mode.
You need to make a conscious decision to listen. Actively listen.
Listening is always present in great short-form improv; when it's quick and sharp, when ideas are pinging off the walls and reaching hilarious conclusions, when mistakes are seamlessly being stitched in, when laughs are being ridden like a bucking bronco - the players are listening to each other. Just very quickly. It's a heightened sense of communication. It's intuitive, instinctive, and seems almost psychic at times to the audience.
In long-form there's even more to remember. Characters may return. Details need to be re-called perhaps an hour, or even two hours later. Themes need to be built, and story arcs developed. All tied-together. The temptation for many, when they first start, is to go into their heads, thinking, "What should I say, or do, or make happen next?" when they should be listening hard, trying to remember what's happening now - storing it in their mind for later. Like a camera on a fast shutter speed.
I'm always saying to students in class: "Remember to listen. Listen to remember.”
This places you in-the-moment. And that's where the improviser wants to be. All-of-the time. And that's hard. And that's why we play so many of these games, and have all these tools, to help us do just that. Be in the now.
Every time I'm about to go on-stage, I have a private word with myself and say, "Listen, Bev". It's a habit I've consciously formed. It's almost become like a mantra, and it really helps.
I've been performing with my group, The Suggestibles, for 16 years. We know each other and fire off each other really well. Usually a silly word-game before we go on-stage puts us in a good place, in the zone and connected. There are other nights. When it's rammed, a new venue, perhaps a massive stage (it's harder to communicate with each other when you're 30 feet away, or on a balcony, or under a trap door) and we can sense nerves, or we're all just hyper. That's when we tell each other, as a group, we look each other in the eye, and say, "Listen. Listen. Listen."
But what can you do if you find yourself in a scene, and you know your partner's not listening to you? If they're constantly interrupting you and you never get to finish your thought?
Tell them. Say something like, "You're not listening to me." Or, "Stop interrupting me." Say it in character, as part of the scene (with a twinkle in your eye). Done playfully and with good nature, this should be enough to snap them out of it, and at the same time can give an interesting dynamic or turn to the scene. Hopefully it's enough to put you both back on track together, and be fun and awesome once more!
It's important not to judge you or your partner harshly, but to be honest with yourself if you stopped listening - and not to beat yourself up about either! Just be self-aware, and remind yourself to listen more next time. If, in your team chat, you tell each other to listen before you go on-stage, take a moment after the show together to ask if you achieved that. It's good to reflect openly and positively with each other after shows, especially in the early days.
Take those fundamental skills you learn in class, the listening you practise so well in workshop, and actively transfer them to the stage. Other improvisers will love you for it.
I say, "Be a polite improviser!" You may be playing a loud, brashy type, a crazed villain, a big boisterous bully (and it's probably more like to happen with high status argumentative characters), but you… you the Improviser, can let the other improviser finish their thought.
It’s rude not to :)