“Everybody’s talkin’ at me, I don’t hear a word they’re sayin'” – Nilsson
If the thought of doing a silent scene fills you with nightmare visions of Marcel Marceau, relax. You don’t need to chew the scenery, and not everyone has to be mute.
Even one silent character can steal the show.
Second City actor Jason DeRosse played a baby in a five-person scene. The other performers were hilarious, but the audience was riveted on Jason. He didn’t make a sound; just lay on his back looking wide-eyed and innocent, occasionally grasping a mobile overhead.
When I asked him about it afterwards, he told me “Strength in silence!”
If you want to strengthen your non-verbal muscles, the following exercises can help.
Music is a powerful emotional cue. Some of the most memorable scenes in movie history use music in place of dialogue:
• The shower scene in Psycho
• The opening montage from Up
• The iconic slow-mo walk from Reservoir Dogs
Rob Norman and Becky Johnson did a silent scene with music at Comedy Bar. The audience shouted out “colonscopy” and “Titanic.”
Mark Andrada cued the title song, and Rob and Becky played out a love story between doctor and patient that could only happen in improv.
Now it’s your turn…
For this exercise, select two performers.
The Coach/Director plays a piece of music. It can be anything from Carly Rae Jepson to Jay-Z, from jazz to blues to hillbilly music.
The music sets the mood for the scene, which the players perform without words.
They can be sitting, standing, miming an action; it doesn’t matter, as long as there’s eye contact and a connection between the characters. Let the musical changes inform the action and reactions.
Try it with different kinds of music, with or without chairs.
You can also try adding sound effects.
Watch how sound effects heighten the tension (and hilarity) in this scene from Boogie Nights. (Yes, there is dialogue, but the tension is in the spaces between the words and sounds.)
This is similar to the Gibberish Translation exercise, except the people on stage are silent.
To begin, choose four people. Two will be in the scene, and two will be Narrators. The Narrators stand on either side of the stage or rehearsal space. The other two ask for a location, then start the scene without speaking.
They can be sitting, standing, miming an action; it doesn’t really matter. The only rule is, no talking.
Allow the performers to settle in for 20 to 30 seconds, giving them time to get comfortable with their character and make eye contact with their scene partner.
One Narrator then voices a thought inside the head of the character closest to him.
The second Narrator then voices the other character’s thoughts.
Since all the dialogue is internal, the characters can’t hear what each other is thinking. For example:
Narrator 1: Look at Brad, sitting there all smug. What a d-bag.
Narrator 2: Cathy sure is pretty. I wonder if she likes me?
So we’ve established that Player 1, voiced by Narrator 1, is repulsed by Player 2. Meanwhile Player 2, voiced by Narrator 2, has a crush on Player 1.
From here, both the Players and Narrators can have fun ratcheting up the tension between them, since all of the thoughts – however outrageous they might become – are in the characters’ heads, while their outward appearance might suggest something else.
1 to 50
This exercise demonstrates the importance of tone and body language, and the unimportance of words when we communicate.
Two people start a scene, with or without a suggestion. Instead of words, they can only say numbers. The players take turns until they reach 50. For instance:
Player 1: One.
Player 2: Two.
Player 1: (quizzical) Three, four?
Player 2: (excited) Five-six-seven!
Notice how quickly we become emotional when we don’t have words to hide behind. In order to communicate your point of view, tone and physicality become much more important.
Good Morning Fucko
This exercise is great fun to watch and play. The Coach/Director may side coach, in order to keep players focused on responding to each other, while maintaining their own point of view.
To begin, place two chairs close to each other, facing the audience. This will be the bed.
Two players lie back in the chairs with their eyes closed. They silently choose a deal, or point of view, for themselves as they “sleep.”
After 10 or 15 seconds, the Coach/Director says, “Good morning, Fucko.”
Both people wake up, in character.
The scene plays out silently, as the performers discover where they are, and who these characters are to each other.
Are they married? Roommates? Was it a one-night stand?
Remind players to check in with each other as they go about their day.
Don’t race through activities. If your character makes the bed, don’t just flip the covers and walk away – unless that’s how that character makes a bed.
If you step in the shower, turn on the taps. Then grab the soap. Does it have a hair in it? Ewww. Find the shampoo, and so on.
Or maybe you skip the shower and find yourselves sitting across the table having cereal.
What is the vibe between you? That’s the scene.
(Thanks to Todd Stashwick, Adam Cawley, Rob Norman, Jason DeRosse, Susan Messing, Tom Vest, Greg Hess, and David Razowsky for their help with this post. Stay tuned for more exercises in Part Two.)