Here is an example of a technique I developed specifically to do the kind of abstract, poetic and nonnarrative improvisation which interests me. I don’t think this technique is particularly useful in comedy or dramatic improvisations. (Of course, very few people besides me are actually working on abstract, language-based improvisations, so there may not be that many people who find this technique useful. Still, it should be good for something! If you find it helpful to you in your work, I’d love to hear from you.)

Most actors who have basic training in acting technique understand what to do when they are not speaking during an improvised scene. Just as in a scripted scene, the goal is to stay “inside of” the circumstances of the scene, and “inside of” the flow of your character’s reactions to everything that happens. This goal remains constant, whether you are speaking or not. You naturally allow yourself to be aware of the literal meaning of what the other characters are saying, as well as the underlying emotional tone, just as you would in real life, because the style of narrative theater demands that everything you do, even if comically absurd or exaggerated, lies “within” the storyline.

But what are you to do if your goal is to create a more abstract, poetic form of theater in which the actors are creating an evocative collage of poetic texts rather than telling a story? If the scene has no story, what exactly are you doing when you aren’t speaking? If you’re not responding to the other actors by reacting to the literal meaning of what they just said, how are you responding? One senses that an abstract scene must have a “structure” which the actor remains “inside of” throughout the scene, analogous to the “storyline” structure of traditional theater, but what exactly is this structure?

The answer I came up with for my own work, after many years of experimentation, is that the structure I preferred to work with is a musical structure. The scene, a collage of improvised texts, is really an organically whole composition which, like music, has the logic of a connected series of feeling states. Each feeling state naturally evolves into the next one, which creates the “meaning” of the scene, exactly as it does in a piece of music. (At least certain styles of music, for example Romantic music.)

This means that, by analogy to the actor in a narrative scene, the job of the actor in the abstract scene is to simply be “inside” of the flow-of-feeling-states which IS the scene’s structure. Her goal is to be “inside” of the scene at all times, whether she is silent or speaking. Her silences are just as full of feeling, and have just as much of a rhythmic, musical form to them as her speeches do. She simply speaks when speech helps her feel more connected to the flow of the scene, and is silent when silence helps her feel more connected. Her task (“be as connected to the flow of the scene as possible”) remains constant. (Much of this is covered in my previous entry “words as a tool to help you feel.”)

However, she will soon discover that if she tries to “listen” to what the other actors are saying, that is, to really focus on and understand the literal meaning of what they are saying, as we’re used to doing when performing a traditional scene, it will throw everything in the scene off. After all, it is precisely this characteristic, of “responding to the literal meaning of words” which distinguishes the narrative-based from the nonnarrative styles of theater. Since the goal in narrative theater is to stay “inside of the storyline,” as an actor, you naturally want to take in the literal meaning of what others are saying. (You, the actor, want to take in the meaning, even if it happens to be a moment in the scene when your “character”, self-centerdly, is not listening to what the others are saying.)

By contrast, my goal is to create a form of theater in which the texts are all related to each other primarily through the underlying feelings and musical qualities, and only secondarily or accidentally through the literal meaning of the words. (I think of this style as being a way to encourage audiences to be comfortable inside of their feelings and intuition, without having to rely on following a story.) In theater of this style, if you listen too closely to the literal meaning of what the other actors are saying, it destroys the scene. It draws you completely out of the flow-of-feeling-states, what I like to call the “understructure,” which the scene is based on. It tempts you to entertain yourself and the audience by creating a kind of “surface unity” to the scene, where, by making clever connections between your own subject matter and the subject matter of the other actors, you trap the scene at the level of intellectual cleverness, and prevent yourself from discovering any deeper, really interesting connections.

The solution I developed is, when I am not speaking during a scene, to focus on connecting to the voices of the other actors primarily on the level of emotional and musical tone rather than on the level of the literal meaning of the words. I listen in the same way you listen to someone speaking in a language which you don’t understand. I don’t go so far as to try to “block out” the literal meaning; it would be a wasted effort to try and prevent myself from taking in the meaning of the words. It is perfectly fine that on some level I “know” that my partner is talking about a supermarket, or about flying to the moon. But I don’t focus on taking in the literal meaning; I put actual effort into connecting to the emotional and musical qualities of her voice.

To be more precise: my effort at all moments in the scene is to feel the emotional-and-musical flow of the scene as a whole. If I’m the only one speaking, that means that I’ll feel most of this flow within my own voice. If my partner and I are both speaking simultaneously, I’ll feel this flow in the combination of our two voices. If I am silent and my partner is speaking, I’ll primarily feel this flow as being “inside of” my partner’s voice. And, of course, if everyone is being silent, I’ll feel this flow as being “inside of” the silence.

The fascinating result is, when the actors make no conscious attempt to connect the literal meaning of what they are saying to what the other actors are saying (but also make no attempt to block out the literal meaning) and instead focus all of their efforts on connecting to the other actors’ voices on the emotional and musical level, the texts which the actors come out with are automatically deeply connected, on the literal level, on the metaphoric and poetic level, as well as on the emotional level. In fact, typically, the scene which emerges is so coherent that it feels as if every single line in it is addressing a single topic. And this happens without any conscious effort on the part of the actors. What I am calling “not listening” to your partner, apparently leads to what improvising composer Pauline Oliveros refers to as “deep listening.”