I believe very strongly that when you perform an improvised theater scene, the real scene does not consist of the words you say. It is the underlying structure, a continuous flow of feelings and energy, which constitutes the real scene. Making this distinction has important consequences for how you approach your work.

When I am working with beginning students, I always have them perform scenes by vocalizing with gibberish and pure vocal sounds, before I allow them to do a scene with real words. The idea is that when they perform the scene, they perceive that the throughline of the scene is a connected flow of energy, emotions and musicality which lies underneath the level where words are. Since, in my own group, we work in an abstract form, we usually conceptualize this flow as having a musical structure to it, but the exact same idea can be used in a narrative scene with characters.

The image we use is that the scene itself is this flow of energy and feelings. It is as if the scene is something which exists already in its perfect form, and the job of the performer is discover what this form is by feeling it. The actor’s vocal line becomes the tool which she uses to feel each moment of the flow of the scene.

The Vocal Line is a continuous line of sounds and silences, which lasts throughout the scene. Think of the silences and the sounds as being two parts of a continuous Vocal Line, in the exact same way that “rests” (silences) as well as notes are a part of a musical line in a musical score. This enables you to think of the Vocal Line as a tool for experiencing each moment of the flow of the scene. In other words: the voice is not a way of expressing the scene, it is not a way of communicating the scene, it is not a way of explaining the scene to the audience. It is primarily a way for you, the actor, to feel the flow of the scene. Since your goal is to feel the scene as fully as you possibly can at each moment, you will use the “voiced” part of your Vocal Line whenever that is what enables you to feel the most, and you will use the “silent” part of your Vocal Line whenever the silence is what helps you to feel the most. But at every moment, you’re still performing the same task: using your Vocal Line in order to feel the flow of the scene as fully as you can possibly feel it.

In practice, when performing a scene using nonverbal sounds, the actor often knows, inside her mind, exactly what words she would be saying if I was allowing her to use real words. This is no problem. I ask the student, in this case, to simply be sloppy in how she pronounces the words, to not fully enunciate them and to not turn them into fully articulated words, but allow them to be slurred, unclear vocal sounds. The idea of the exercise is that student is checking to make sure she is connected at each moment to an emotional/musical flow which is underneath the words, rather than just being inside the logic of “what she is talking about” or inside of her ideas about the scene or even inside the visual images she is bringing up.

The next stage in the training is to allow the student to use real words during certain parts of the scene, and to go back to nonverbal sounds the rest of the time. When using words, the student will still think of the words as a tool for feeling the flow of emotions/musicality which lies underneath. In the context of this exercise, it doesn’t matter whether the words make sense or not, whether they are interesting or boring, whether the actor thinks what she is saying is “stupid” or “wonderful,” whether it is repetitive or not, whether the actor is speaking in full coherent sentences or unintelligible fragments, whether the words actually describe something going on in the actor’s mind or if they do not, whether the words relate to something another actor in the scene has said, or if they do not. The goal of the actor is still to “feel the flow of the scene as fully as possible in each moment,” and she simply uses any words which allow her to feel the flow as fully as she can. As before, if being silent allows her to feel more at a certain moment, she should use her silence as a way of feeling the flow.

Doing this exercise, the student is practicing the idea that the throughline of the scene is the flow of energy-and-feelings underneath, not the narrative or intellectual line of what the actor is talking about.

There are two ways I use of having the student switch back and forth between verbal and nonverbal sections. In the first method, I watch the scene, and whenever I feel that the student is constructing her scene but following the line of the verbal subject matter (what she is talking about) and that she has lost her connection to the underlying flow of energy-and-feelings, I will say “Go Nonverbal,” and she will switch to nonverbal vocalizing. If it is indeed true that she has lost her connection to the underlying flow, there will be an audible glitch as she has to switch gears mentally and reconnect with the flow of feelings. This glitch will be an important clue, both to her and to me. When I feel satisfied that she has re-established a strong connection to the flow, I will say “Go Verbal,” and she will switch back to vocalizing with real words.

In the second method, the student herself decides when to switch back and forth. Whenever she is uncertain that she still has a strong connection to the underlying flow, she will switch to nonverbal vocalizing, in order to check the connection. When she is certain that the connection is strong, she can switch back to using real words.

After a while, this will train the student to always construct a scene by following the line of the underlying feelings-and-energy, instead of a line based on what she is talking about. Just the threat that the director might say “Go Nonverbal” at any moment is enough to ensure that she performs in such a way that she could switch to the nonverbal, without the telltale glitch, at any moment, because she is placing herself inside the flow of feelings rather than inside of the verbal subject matter.

The final stage of training, of course, is to do an entire scene, remaining fully verbal the whole time. When the student has learned how to construct a scene by following the throughline of the underlying feelings-and-energy, and to use words as a tool to help her to feel this flow as fully as possible at each moment, she will be ready to remain fully verbal throughout a scene. At this point, she will probably discover that it is much easier to perform this way using words, than it is to use nonverbal sounds. This is because, as a tool for entering into feeling-states, words are much more powerful than nonverbal sounds, because they evoke feeling-states with much greater specificity. This is why we are interested in watching scenes with words in the first place!