Easy listening has a bad rap. It’s come to be shorthand for bland inoffensive music – the kind piped into elevators and department stores. And I’m not a fan of terrible music, but the easy listening I’m talking about doesn’t share any artistic DNA with Muzak; rather it’s a laid-back approach to improv that allows scenes to grow and flourish.
It doesn’t matter whether you love short-form or swear by long-form – or whether you’re into authentic genre work or rate groups solely on the laughs-per-minute, there is one thing that all good improv shares: listening. It’s the key to doing scenes that really flourish. And it’s easier than you might think.
Hence the name: ‘Easy Listening’.
To be or not to be
When you strip everything away, there are only two ways for a scene to go. One: the performers work cooperatively to tell the story that emerges through improvisation. Or two: they miss the signs (or willfully try and push an idea they like) and the scene veers off into incongruence and stagnation. It will still be a scene but it will never really take off. Like a conversation where one party is just waiting for their turn to speak, rather than listening and responding to the other person. We’ve all been in those conversations – and know they’re no fun.
Whether the scene works or not is – like a conversation – all down to the listening.
The idea for a scene isn’t brought onto stage, it’s discovered in the moment. And if you’re not looking (or listening) for it, you can miss it. And then the moment’s gone.
And the cycle continues until hopefully an idea gains some traction – and that’s where the scene goes. The problem is the longer you ignore the ideas that are presenting themselves, the more likely you are to invent one, or shoehorn in an idea to try and jumpstart the scene.
And no offense to invention, or chasing that great idea you really want to put on stage, but once a story has emerged, it is so much easier to just fulfill the promise of that – there’s no need to keep searching. Besides, those first offers? That's what the audience wants to see, and what the scene wants to be.
That's not to say that there's only one possibility for what a scene could be, there are millions of shades and directions, but they all need to relate to – and be rooted in – the offers that have come before.
The problem is, the signs can be subtle. A simple hand gesture, a facial expression, a hesitation... anything could be the thread that will take you into the story. These offers can be hard to spot – especially if you’re not paying attention. But if you are, you can just follow that idea, and the scene will unfold as if on its own. The difference between searching for an idea and following the natural thread is the difference between surfing on a wave, and splashing around in it – and possibly drowning.
What needs to be developed is a sensitivity to the minute offers your scene partner makes and the possibilities presented by the scenario. Your instincts need to be trained to respond appropriately – whatever that means to you and the character you're playing. This means you need to be 'listening' to your partner and everything around you. I’ll give you an example.
At a recent workshop two players were doing a straight scene as a doctor and patient. When the patient responded to the doctor that he ‘was feeling great.’ The doctor said ‘oh, that’s too bad.’ The patient declared that it wasn’t too bad at all – and she started showing how good her ballet was. I stopped the scene and asked them to go back a couple of lines and really listen to each other.
This time the patient ‘heard’ the doctor’s disappointment in his reply. And the scene went in an entirely different direction, as we learned about their co-dependency. It was funny and touching – and it felt ‘real’.
I didn’t stop the initial scene because I wasn’t enjoying it – in fact it was lovely and funny. I stopped it because I saw that a moment of listening was traded in for an opportunity to be creative. To me this meant we missed what the scene was actually about, and started doing something else. But by listening, being aware, and following on logically from what each person does, a delightful story will inevitably develop. It happened in this case, and nothing was missed.
Once you get out of your own way the scene work that occurs will, nine times out of nine, be immensely satisfying. Because it will have unfolded in a seemingly natural way, no matter how strange the world you've created. You’ll have a blast. The audience will love it too. They’ll tell you “you make it look so easy.”
Because once you get over the need to be creative and start really listening, it will be easy. It will be Easy Listening – without the cheesy saxophone solos.