Listening is vital, and it is the key to everything in improv. If your ears and eyes (and sometimes your touch) aren’t working, you’ll find out what that means quicker than your eyes water while looking at the sun. The heart and soul of an art form, practice, or format with no preconceived content is paying attention to those creating it in the moment. When done well, this is one reason audiences stay for an improv show, and ultimately what will bring them back.
Let’s start at the beginning. I’ve already shared a few blogs pertaining to other aspects of improv (links will be provided below) that help set the stage for how improvisers accomplish what they create, but now we’re delving into the “what.” And that’s the utter beauty of it all. We don’t know until we’re in it.
We know formats, but that doesn’t tell us the content. It’s kind of like baseball. Every time a brand new game starts, everyone knows the general rules, field layouts, and if you’re a diehard, you know the stats of all the starting players. While those give ideas of what could happen within the boundaries allowed, they can’t predict the exact consequences of play that will ensue.
Take, for example, the only live baseball game I’ve ever seen. I was with my dad at Fenway Park in Boston (he’s a pureblood Red Sox fan) watching the Red Sox play their rivals, the New York Yankees. Already I couldn’t have asked for a better game. Not only did I see great baseball, but I saw it played with every heightened emotion possible.
In those nine innings, I saw stolen bases, home runs, a grand slam, a booed Alex Rodriguez, and climactically the Red Sox beating the Yankees at home. I am absolutely not a baseball fan, but that day I had so much fun cheering for a team I didn’t know. The energy was electric, the play superb, and the company the absolute best.
This is what I mean by listening. All my preconceived notions or ideas, or my dislike of baseball, ended up carrying no weight while watching that game because I loved living in the moment and letting the players take me along with them.
This is why listening equates to great improv.
Many people determine that listening means they anticipate or predict what is coming or work hard to guess what the other person has planned. These examples are not listening. They are, instead, examples of prediction or guessing. I know, talk about revolutionary. Skill and attention go into listening, but that shouldn’t come at the cost of looking to put words into the other person’s mouth.
Let’s try a classic listening exercise on and see how we do. This is called Word Association. Standing in a circle, one person begins by turning to either their right or left and saying any word to their neighbor—honestly, any word. Let’s use balloon. If I start, I will pass the word balloon onto you. Your job is to grab hold of the very first thing balloon makes you think of, and then give that to your neighbor. In a truly complicated fashion, this process repeats throughout the whole circle.
Doesn’t sound too tricky, right? In all fairness, it shouldn’t be, but the trick comes when you add human beings to the mix. Amateur and experienced participants of this game fall into classic blunders like hearing a word four people ahead and taking that association in their mind. Then regardless of what gets immediately passed onto them, they share that word to their neighbor. As they pass it, they feel so proud of what they’ve done, but everyone else is wondering how they connected sunshine to octopus (to use a general example).
Or, when they’re provided a word, they display indecisiveness, talking themselves out of why the first thing they thought of wasn’t “correct” or “appropriate,” arguing with themselves until they’re comfortable with a word choice somewhere down the line.
Or, they criticize the word choice given to them and complain it wasn’t what they wanted, so they decide to go with what they had planned anyway.
There are others, but hopefully, you get the idea. Listening relies on a calm mind, relaxation, but also a readiness to interpret what you’re about to receive. If all you can do is mentally prepare for what you think will come, then you won’t be ready for what will.
To bring up something of a counter-argument to this, I’m not saying that planning or preparation is terrible. Going back to the baseball example, those players train every day (the good ones all year long) for a few solid hours of performance. Preparation absolutely plays a part in listening, but only before game time begins. Once you’re in it, turn off your brain, and stay present.
Another excellent example of this is a presentation or pitch during a board meeting. You work your tail off leading up to the meeting, and once you’re there you might begin as you planned, but there’s seldom a perfect accounting for what will happen, or the feedback you’ll receive. All you can do is your best and then learn from the outcome.
When a live improvisational show is underway, part of the fun is in the total investment of unknown content. There is an element of discomfort, but mostly it’s fun. We learn to invest in ourselves, our partners, and the audience as we build and create and explore what we’re given. When we ask for suggestions from the audience, we’re inviting them to come along with us by getting us started, and then if we’re any good, we’ll continually tie that suggestion into what we make.
We cannot do this if we’re closed off, ignorant, selfish, or hell-bent on committing solely to our idea. Listening requires teamwork, effort, adjusting plans, emotional vulnerability, and many more active applications. Even those who achieve a level of mastery over listening still demonstrate an active presence doing it. That’s because to master it, you need to confirm it consistently and consistently well.
Listening is a skill that we learn how to enhance or diminish. We either get better or get worse. There’s not a whole lot of in-between. The main reasons I’ve come to this conclusion are primarily that we are always talking to people—both old and new—and we’re always exchanging information—digitally, manually, etc. Due to this constant association with the world around us, it’s tough to not evolve our listening in some way. I’d argue one would have to dedicate themselves to stagnation in this department to achieve it.
If we’re always in flux with how well we do, it stands to reason we can actively practice it and continuously improve. Go on and try it the next time you have a conversation. Don’t begin with an agenda, preconceived notion, personal idea, or preference for how you’d like it to go. Contribute to the discussion, but listen, react, listen again, and react again, and see how you do.
I’m constantly surprised how often I catch myself trying to direct the conversation or steer it where I’d like it to go. Or, I’m more interested in sharing how I look at the current topic, creating a listing of my thoughts in my head instead of paying attention to the person I’m going through it all with. When I catch myself and exercise the discipline to let all that go and stay in the moment, I’ve never had a bad experience. They’re exciting and sometimes awkward or uncomfortable, but never bad. Because they’re honest and sincere.
Genuine nature is witnessed when pure listening is demonstrated.
There you have it—a breakdown around probably one of improv’s more important working pieces. Go on and give it a try. I’d also love to hear your thoughts, so leave some comments!