Silence in Improv: Interview with Rebecca MacMillan
Your course ‘Beyond Words’ focussing on silence in improv starts soon. What gave you the idea for this course?
For me, there are two things about silence in improv. I realised some years back that in my own improvisation my ‘panic response’ is to be overly verbal. Since then I have enjoyed challenging myself to play with the palette of all-the-things-except-words you can do in a scene. I’ve had particular fun in shows like Happily Never After where all-the-things-except-words can add hugely to the atmosphere.
Later I started leading classes at Maydays improv retreats and intensives focusing on this, and I loved watching others’ discoveries in how to use noises, bodies, faces, eye contact, background noises… and so on and so forth.
Have you seen any other improv artists or companies using silence in improv for their work?
I Bugiardini took an improvised silent movie to the Edinburgh Fringe for years, but there are many touches in many shows that I have seen and loved. The most poignant, shocking or hilarious moments of shows both improvised and scripted are often wordless. Think about when they show the most loved and best bits of classic comedy shows on tv.
How do you feel online improv interacts with being non-verbal in scenes?
I would say the tendency within most improv I’ve seen online has been to go more verbal. We aren’t in the same space as the other person and we just have a 2D image of them. We usually sit down in one spot, object and environment work is limited or looks odd, and we can usually only really see someone’s face and the face has a tendency to make words.
I’m hoping that we can push against some of these limitations to generate other possibilities. With all online teaching I feel it’s very important to maximise the specific possibilities and benefits of being on Zoom, rather than simply adapting ‘real life’ exercises and a poor substitute for a course where we are all in one room. The content of this course has therefore been designed so we will experience the things that can work in either environment, but we will also be playing with techniques that only really work well on camera and on screen.
What is your advice for someone wanting to go beyond words in their improv?
I think the biggest challenge to overcome is feeling comfortable just being in the moment, in the scene, in character without talking. Just being. The realisation that an audience won’t think that’s weird if you commit fully is powerful.
An exercise I find useful is to think about being in an everyday situation in real life with someone you know well (lockdown notwithstanding!). It’s unlikely you would talk anything like as much as you would in a scene. But the looks, the gestures, the body language, the emotional or habitual noises we make. Those say just as much as the words. If not more.
A being from another planet who only understands tweet length sentences is interested in taking your course – how will you describe it to them?
Humans connect through unplanned theatre on screens without using mouth words.
Rebecca MacMillan teaches our online Beyond Words: Silent and Non-Verbal improv course which starts on November 13th at 7.30pm GMT.