I’ve taught and performed long-form improv for the past nine years. For those unfamiliar, long-form improv is different than what we usually see on TV in shows like Whose Line is it Anyway. In long-form you take a suggestion from the audience and then you create characters and perform scenes inspired by the suggestion.
The thing I love about improv is also the thing that terrifies me. It’s the moment you walk out on the empty stage – with no script, with no idea what is about to happen, with an expecting audience that’s paid good money to be there – and the lights come up and you are greeted with silence. The silence is not simply the absense of noise. It is the absense of knowing. How you handle the silence is the defining moment of the show.
(Side note… I have found life’s defining moments are pregnant with silence. It’s with you as your trembling hand dials that phone number. It’s in the deep breath you exhale after you realize there is nothing left to say. Sometimes the silence takes residence in your soul and lasts for weeks or months, even years.)
Back to improv…
Inexperienced performers find silence unnerving, so they spew words and manufacture moments in an attempt to get a response from their audience. They need the audience to tell them what their story is.
Experienced performers are patient with the silence. They understand that their story is already right in front of them. The silence gives them time to discover it.
I was recently introduced to a band that continues to grow on me. The Gloaming is an Irish band rooted in traditional Irish folk but infused with a contemporary sound whose end result is something very moving and often emotional. When I listen to their music, I see muscians who are comfortable with the silence.
Their song simply titled “Opening Set” illustrates my point. At nearly 16 minutes in length the song begins with brilliant restraint and patience. I, as the audience, cannot help but inch forward in my seat. “I’m listening.” I say, “Tell me more.” When the song’s narrative transitions from quiet invocation to driving proclamation the payoff is sublime.
Today is St. Patrick’s Day and so I’m letting the music of Ireland remind me to sit confidently in the quiet moments, to be content with the unknowing, to embrace the silence, however long it lasts.
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A WRITER AND TRAVELER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES