Experts say anywhere from 60-90% of communication is non-verbal (facial expression, gestures, and posture). We take our cues from how people sit, stand or move. But the information doesn’t end there.
“Hairstyle is body language. Clothing is body language.” – Fred Herzog, Photographer
Look at the men in the photo.
The guy with the beard, Subaru shirt and camo pants is worlds apart from the dude with the checked shirt and forlorn expression. If I were to guess their first lines of dialogue, it’d probably be something like:
Guy #1: “I used to ride bikes in the military.”
Guy #2: “I wish Maanika would call me.”
In improv though, it’s rarely this obvious. We don’t have as many physical cues to get a read on someone’s character right away. So what can we do?
Mime An Accessory
In Trust Us, This Is All Made Up, TJ initiates an office worker who wears a beret. With one small gesture, adjusting the angle of the hat on his head, his character instantly becomes more interesting.
Maybe your character likes to stroke his beard, or play with her ponytail. I’ve seen Lisa Merchant mime goatees, while Ted Hallett twirls imaginary locks that would make Kim Kardashian jealous.
Maybe you’re wearing a scarf or a boa that keeps coming loose so you have to keep tossing it over your shoulder.
It doesn’t matter what it is; just reach out into space and find something, then use it to learn about your character.
Scene Paint Someone
If it’s three minutes in and we still know nothing about the people on stage, go in and scene paint something on them. Be specific. Is it a corduroy jacket, or a $6,000 Tom Ford suit? Reveal that they have a secret tattoo, describing what and where it is in detail. Endow someone with a toupée or glass eye.
Give them something to dimensionalise their character, and it will add dimension to the scene.
Study Body Language Like A Thief
There are so many tiny physical clues to how a person is feeling:
• Touching the back of the neck or head signifies doubt or uncertainty.
Improvisers who get in their head often do this unconsciously. If you see this happening to your scene partner, you can snap back them back into the moment by asking them if they need clarity.
• Putting both arms behind the head and leaning back in a chair is a show of status. (Watch for it at your next big meeting.)
• Touching or scratching the top of your hand or forearm signals stress. It’s especially common when people feel anxious or under attack.
Anna Gunn, who played Skyler in Breaking Bad, brushes her forearm ever so slightly when Skyler tells Walt she’s afraid of him.
Watch for these and other clues from your scene partners. You probably know friends or family members with unique quirks or tics; gestures that tell you they’re happy, anxious, sad, or about to explode. Try using some of them on stage, and see where they lead you.
“No scene is ever about the words being spoken.” – Del Close