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by Darren Held

My friend and troupemate Richard Bojorquez asked me to write about the art of shutting up, and I think shutting up is really something that can’t be talked about too much. So I’m happy to oblige.

In improv, there is a tendency to rush to fill every gap in dialogue with more dialogue. It’s natural; there is something inherently scary about dead air, and improvisers are often fearful of boring their audience with “nothingness.” But their mistake is in thinking that silence is “nothingness.”

Think of all the powerful things that can be conveyed in silence. Your expression, your body language, your anger/joy/despair/whatever all have a chance to emerge and percolate and grow if you aren’t rushing to speak. Stare down your opponent. Gaze at your partner with awe. Let your face crumple with grief. There is so much power in NOT speaking, and it gives the audience a chance to catch up with you and be with you in that moment of transition. It also gives YOU a chance to let something matter and to decide what to say and do next.

In real life, we don’t rush to fill those gaps. If we need to take a moment to formulate our thoughts, we do so without freaking out. Of course, in improv you need trust in order to be comfortable with silence: you have to trust that you will know what to say when it’s time to say it, you have to trust your scene partner to also be comfortable with the silence and not talk over it, and you have to trust the intelligence of the audience to be willing to let you play the scene for real.

Aimee and I did a scene in a show where I labeled her character as having trouble spitting out a sentence. She could’ve argued the point, and I could’ve belabored it. But instead, I said it and she listened and we waited – and that extra silence was hilarious AND proved my character’s point about her character’s inability to speak well.

By taking that time, you build the excitement and suspense, and the audience loves that intensity. Just blabbing constantly takes away the mystery and speeds everything up too much – so even when the scene is hilarious, it’s not as satisfying as it could have been (for the players OR for the audience.)

Like everything else in improv (and life), being comfortable with silence takes practice. But when you get the hang of it, you’ll see how cool it is and how much it adds to your scenes. Less really is more sometimes.

Except when it comes to food. Then less is just less, and I do not approve.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

Darren Held
About Darren Held
Darren is the CEO and Creative Director of Held2gether, Improv for LIfe. He has been teaching and performing improv for 15 years, and has performed with H2g, the Groundlings, UCB and Second City. He loves Moto, red wine, and Madonna.

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