Someone found this blog by searching the phrase, “the worst enemy of an improv player is silence.”
In fact, silence can be a huge weapon in your arsenal.
As an improviser, you’re a storyteller. The best storytellers use all kinds of devices to convey the story. That means object work, words, physicality, tone of voice… anything that helps you develop your idea.
Check out this awesome scene from “Citizen Kane.”
Watch how the silence increases as the marriage disintegrates. In the first scene, the pair are tripping over each other to talk. Then at 2:15, Kane shoots his wife a cold glance for a good three seconds before speaking. That’s deliberate. And the final scene shows the couple not talking at all, at opposite sides of a long table, the wife reading Kane’s rival newspaper! Frosty.
How would that scene have played out if Mrs. Kane said, “I’m so angry with you, I’m reading your rival newspaper”? Lame.
Granted, in improv, that would be an invisible newspaper, so we wouldn’t necessarily know what she was reading. But a newspaper can act as a barrier between two people. Merely ignoring your spouse to focus on something else sends a clear message.
Silence is awesome when it’s a deliberate choice. It also puts a huge amount of weight on the next words said. If you went 30 seconds without saying something, you’re going to pull in the audience for that 30 seconds. You’re creating huge potential energy that’s only unleashed when a word comes out. At that point, the potential energy becomes kinetic. It’s like blowing up a balloon for a long time before popping it. Give it a try sometime.
(Kevin Smith’s Silent Bob character speaks in almost every film. The key is that Smith only lets the character speak at one very specific moment, giving his words much more weight. All Smith’s other characters are runaway motormouths.)
Now, what if the silence isn’t a deliberate choice? What if you freeze because your mind is racing to find something to say?
The simple fact is that the time you spend searching for your next line does not seem the same to you as it does to the audience. In your mind, a pause of 2-3 seconds feels like four days. Four lifeless days that spin by as the audience drills a hole into you with their cold, judgmental eyes. But it’s not four days. It’s 2-3 seconds. So chill.
Do real conversations have pauses? Sure. That means they’re okay in improv scenes. The key is not to freeze up while you regroup. If you do get lost, it’s time to reinvest in what you’ve already discovered. An improv scene doesn’t have to be constant invention. Think about your character. What’s his point of view? What have you established about him? What’s in your environment? Can you touch or use something there while you think? Look at your partner. How are they acting? How does that make you feel?
Panic won’t help you improvise, so stay relaxed. Silence is fine. Blurting random sentence fragments to kill the silence isn’t. The audience won’t get up and walk out just because you stop talking for a moment. In fact, it might lead you to a cool discovery.
So, my friend who searched for silence-as-the-enemy, I encourage you to rethink that idea. Characters can fall in love, break up, live or die all without a word.