You may have heard the idea that 90% of human communication is non-verbal. While the actual number is debatable, if we're trying to make art that speaks to the human experience, then arguably our improvisation should aspire to a similar ratio. But there are other, more tangible reasons for getting better at non-verbal communication in improv.
We widen our audience
Perhaps most obviously, our work becomes more accessible if we don't rely on spoken language. Not only can we perform for audiences, and with other improvisors, who lack fluency in our own languages, but it's easier for people with hearing or other language-related difficulties to enjoy and participate in our performance. These situations are sometimes predictable (for example, if you're attending an overseas festival), but often we don't know who our audience is until the show's underway. I remember sitting in a theatre audience some years ago, annoyed that the person in front of me was talking through the whole performance — until I realised they were describing the visual content of the scene for the person beside them, who was unable to see it.
Our characters are richer
You can tell a lot about a character by what they tell you, but isn't it much simpler to watch how a character moves and reacts, and draw your own conclusions? Any beginner improv course includes at least some work on physicalising characters, but in the heat of the scene, with everything else going on, that physicality often fades or disappears altogether. Some people are naturally gifted at this sort of work, but for most of us, this is something we can be constantly improving through repeated practice and attention.
Our relationships are deeper
We can also convey much more nuanced information with facial expression, spatial relationships, and body language than we could with words alone. Think of a character who smiles when they talk to their partner, but makes a face or a rude gesture whenever their back is turned. The other player may not see this information, but they should pick up what is going on from the audience's reaction, leading to a delightful payoff that would be impossible through a talking-heads scene.
Our work becomes more collaborative
You may have heard improvisors talk about being "in their head". If you've been improvising for a while, you probably know the feeling: struggling to connect with the other players, feeling like the audience isn't enjoying the scene, and generally second-guessing your own moves and offers. This happens when we try to think our way out of a problem instead of being inspired and guided by the moment: the unique combination of players, story, audience, and environment that shapes a scene.
Often, we're told the way to get out of our heads is to look for the answer in our scene partner. But if we're just listening to their words, are we only getting 10% of what's there? What can we glean from their posture, their tone of voice, their facial expression, the pace of their movement, whether they're making eye contact?
People want to play with us
As we unlock more channels of non-verbal communication, we become more supportive scene partners in all the ways just mentioned, which makes us fun to be on stage with. But I think there's another really good reason why excessive verbosity is harmful to good improv: words can be used to control our scene partners.If we're being "good" improvisors, we accept and heighten the offers our scene partner gives us. But verbal offers are very concrete: they make inescapable knots around what was just said. Often this is very useful! It would be hard to convey a character's name through squeaks and shrugs. But being in a scene with an extremely wordy improvisor can feel overwhelming, as it can seem like they're making all the decisions. And as someone who's definitely too talky on stage sometimes, I can tell you it doesn't look half as clever or charming to an audience as it feels to you when you're doing it.
Luckily we can practise all this together
As I said, I'm not perfect at this stuff, but I think I know a trick or two. My 8-week course, The Other 90%, covers all the things I talked about above, and gives you plenty of opportunity to work on your non-verbal communication through different exercises and styles of improvisation. The only way to get better at this stuff is by doing it!
The Other 90% is a workshop series aimed at avoiding the dreaded “number 11” (two people standing upright saying words) by exploring techniques for natural, organic, and engaging physical interaction, and taking offers from what is observed rather than what is said. The course content touches on specific skills like mime and dance, as well as more general techniques for telling stories without just relying on talking.
Workshops start August 12 at Toi Poneke, Te Aro. We offer full and concession prices, as well as several scholarship options which close on 31st July. Registrations are open now!