By Darren Held

5 Words: Make ‘Em Count

by Sonnjea Blackwell

I don’t know about you, but I like it when my ideas turn out to be good ones. I’ve had a couple ideas over the years that haven’t panned out, and I have to say I like those less.

Anyway, I taught the drop-in improv class the other night, and my theme for the evening was on information and justification, primarily. And I had this idea, based on my observations of students in my classes as well as other classes – not to mention my own experience – that the more words an improvisor uses, the more likely it is their scene will become casual, “talky,” and conversational.

Of course, in improv, you want your scene to be about your relationship and what’s happening today that’s different from other days. What’s the “big what?” So if today is so freakin’ important, shouldn’t the words be important? Of course they should. That was a rhetorical question.

So I came up with the idea to do regular 2-person scenes, but with the catch that EACH line of dialogue could contain no more than five words. My thought was that, with so few words at their disposal, students would cut to the heart of the matter, eliminating the chit-chat. And I knew that counting words would make them a bit heady, so I suggested using that time to add information in other ways – through physicality, emotion, spacework and using the stage picture.

It worked GREAT. Scenes were about relationship, people got to the big “what” in one or two lines, the facial expressions, physicality and emotions were through the roof. Everything I expected.

But then a student explained what it felt like to do the scene, and I realized the exercise had an added benefit I hadn’t expected. She said that only being able to say five words was helpful to her because it cut down on the options, and that only having to hear five words at a time made it much easier for her to process her scene partner’s information and figure out what was important and what she should respond to.

That’s brilliant, and I hadn’t even thought of it in those terms. But I know sometimes I have a tendency to overtalk, and I realize now that not only does that make what I say more casual and less important, but it makes it difficult for my scene partner to process all that information.

As I said in class, it’s how you say what you say, more than how much you say. I’m going to endeavor to be a better scene partner by limiting my lines to as few words as possible. Maybe you wanna try it with me?