Silence is scary.
Silence between you and your partner.
Silence from the audience, punctuated by the dreaded cough.
This is when we usually resort to babbling. But if you can just breathe through it, nothing will give you more confidence than being comfortable with silence on stage.
Here are some exercises to bring out your inner Harpo.
Emotional Object Work
This exercise uses two performers.
One person does an activity they can repeat, e.g. folding laundry, or hammering wood.
The other person’s job is to say things to make that person react. But they can’t say anything; only show how they feel through how they do their activity.
(Player 1 mimes chopping vegetables)
Player 2: I saw your ex, Linda, today.
(Player 1 starts chopping faster)
Player 2: She was across the street so I couldn’t talk to her.
(Player 1‘s chopping slows to normal)
Player 2: But then guess what? I ran into her again on the bus.
(Player 1 begins chopping furiously)
So now we know Player 1 has something going on with his ex.
Show how you feel through object work: try chopping a cucumber angrily, then happily, then jealously. And that’s just one activity. Imagine the possibilities with assembling an Ikea Malm dresser…
Every time Player 1 says something, Player 2 must find a new object in their environment and show how they feel through that object.
If they’re angry, perhaps they find a ball and squeeze it. If they’re happy, maybe they find a bubble wand and blow bubbles.
This exercise is for, you guessed it, three players.
Two people ask for a relationship (married couple, best friends, co-workers, etc.), and begin a scene.
After they’ve established a conversation, the third person enters. He or she says nothing; the other two immediately stop talking. Everyone stays silent until the third person leaves again.
It might be parents talking about how they don’t have sex anymore, and a kid comes in to grab something from the fridge. Or maybe it’s co-workers planning to quit, and the boss comes in to pour a cup of coffee.
The third person should enter and exit at random, for anywhere from a minute to five seconds.
The Coach/Director chooses two people, and asks for a catchphrase for each one. It can be anything from random sounds (“Sloopadeeoop!”) to a sentence that defines them (“Dudes gotta be dudes, dude”).
Each player can only say their catchphrase throughout the scene. Tone and body language will tell the story.
This is a clown exercise we stole from Todd Stashwick. For this exercise, one person will be the clown, and one person will just be him or herself.
Both players begin by simply walking around the space. The person in front is just being themselves, walking their normal walk.
The clown walks behind them, mocking their partner’s walk, heightening and exaggerating it.
After a minute or so, the person in front suddenly turns and catches the clown in mid-mockery. They both stop in their tracks and make eye contact.
The clown reacts by being genuinely and sincerely sorry for what he or she has done.
Staying where they are, both players slowly turn and silently look at the audience. Don’t mug or play to the audience; just be as real as possible.
Repeat these actions twice more, with the clown’s mockery of his partner’s walk getting more and more absurdly heightened, followed by regret.
Then switch roles.
This exercise works on physicality, mime skills, and giving and taking focus. Oh, and audiences love it.
To begin, two people start a scene down stage. For simplicity, have the players stay seated throughout.
Once the scene has been established, two more people do a silent scene behind them, up stage.
The second scene should somehow relate to the first scene, but take place in a different environment.
For example, if the players upstage are roommates and they mention the neighbours downstairs, the other two can show us what those neighbours are like.
The players down stage should carry on with their scene, while the players up stage show us their world.
Unlike a split scene that takes place on opposite sides of the stage, both of these scenes should play out without pausing. There will still be give and take of focus however, since one pair is talking and the other is silent.
Lastly, we asked improv guru David Razowsky for his thoughts on silent scenes. Here’s what he said:
All scenes have dialogue, even – and especially – scenes without “spoken” dialogue.
When you consider that scenes aren’t about what we say, rather they’re about how we say it, then the world opens up for you.
The first line of dialogue isn’t spoken – it’s noticed. I enter a scene and see you sitting, standing, moving, gesturing, and my first line is based on that; that’s how I cast you.
If we are truly in relationship to each other, then the words that come out of our mouths don’t matter. Any Viewpoints* exercise will highlight that.
I enter a scene and stop. You move somewhere on the stage in relationship to where I stopped. I move somewhere on stage in relationship to that.
We’re in the middle of a scene as long as we’re aware of each other’s “Spatial Relationship.” Our “dialogue” is not spoken text, rather it’s our movement toward and away from each other.
A major part of this exercise is to realize that your ego is going to want you to speak, that you can’t possibly be “interesting” because you’re not using dialogue.
That’s creating from lack and in communion with your ego, never a union that creates, always a union that keeps us in stasis.
This exercise requires you to not do anything to make anything happen: no unnecessary grunts or gestures or movements that aren’t based on responding to your partner.
You have everything you need – trust it.
A scene with no dialogue is the greatest expression of trust two or more actors can engage in.
* Viewpoints is an acting method that utilizes nine tenets:
• Architecture (Everything in your environment: light, shadow, sound, objects, the stage.)
• Spatial Relationship (The relationship you have with a person or your Architecture. You are in a spatial relationship with everything.)
• Shape (When you change your shape on stage, you change the scene and your emotion.)
• Gesture (Can be Expressive, such as a “Talk to the hand” gesture, or Behavioural, such as yawning or a nervous tic.)
• Tempo (The pace at which we do things; the speed or slowness with which we breathe, move, talk, stand.)
• Duration (The length of time we hold a shape, a tempo, a gesture, repetition.)
• Topography (Where you move on stage.)
• Repetitition (Of speech or movement.)
• Kinesthetic Response (A reaction, e.g. I drop something, you look. A door opens, you turn. I come towards you, you back off.)
To learn more about it, check out Viewpoints.