This is the (lightly edited) transcript of a talk I gave the other week as part of Improv Theatre Sydney’s lecture series Rant Academy. It’s improv theory! Hooray! If that’s not your thing turn away now! You can watch the video version here.
Professor Connell, distinguished fellow panellists, esteemed members of the audience. I would like to bring you a message.
Once you start noticing people interrupting each other in improv, you never stop noticing it. I’ve witnessed scene after scene of people unable to complete a thought without someone else jumping in over the top of them to get their idea out instead.
And I know what you’re saying. You’re saying “Jim, I get it. I’m a polite improviser. I’m a nice person. I don’t interrupt people.” To which I would say, you just interrupted me. But I would also say that I think we all do it. I think I do it; I think you do it, and it has become so common that we’ve stopped noticing it, because it’s become part of the default rhythm of improvising. It’s part of the woodwork, we can’t see it any more.
But, it makes us look like amateurs, like we don’t know how to take turns properly. It frustrates me as an audience member, because I wanted to know what that person was about to say before they got cut off. I also believe it’s symptomatic of deeper issues in our work, and I would like to go into those now.
Factor One: Listeni-
First up, I think people interrupt each other because they’re fundamentally not listening properly.
It’s an extension of deciding what you’re going to say before your scene partner has finished speaking. For example, we have a scene where someone says:
Theodore, you didn’t do the dishes! You never contribute around the house. I want a divorce!
The person playing Theodore hears “You didn’t do the dishes,” and thinks “Okay, what’s the thing I can say about not doing the dishes? How can I justify that?” And then when the other person’s finished speaking, Theodore replies with something like
But leaving the dishes lets the plates absorb the flavour!
In doing that, though, they’ve missed the other two offers in the line, including the emotional bombshell at the end of “I want a divorce!”
So, if I know what I’m going to say before you’ve finished speaking, I don’t actually need you to finish speaking in order for me to be able to say what I’m going to say. I might as well interrupt you, it’s more efficient for everyone.
We get the general impression of the character our scene partner is playing and the general impression of what they’re saying, and we think those general impressions will suffice, (Tim Redmond in Melbourne phrased this as ‘Oh, you’re a king, you do king stuff.’ ‘Oh right, you’re an parent, you do parent stuff.’) rather than observing and soaking in as much detail and minutiae as we can about what our scene partner’s doing.
I think that underlying this is the belief that ‘my scene partner’s contribution is only valuable insofar as it helps me come up with my next line.’ And that kinda sucks.
To paraphrase Viola Spolin: when we improvise, we should be listening, not listening for.
Factor Two: Oververbalisi-
We default to always reacting and responding verbally. What can I say in reply to what my scene partner has just said? But there are so many other options that are available to you.
If someone in a scene says “Would you like to come up for a drink?” Simply raising an eyebrow and biting your lip can be so much more powerful than “Ooh yes please, I’d love to. Do you have any chardonnay?” There are so many more options available to us.
If you add into this the pressure of expectation of a fast-paced show that zings and clips along, or you add in the fear that ‘not saying anything’ will be misconstrued as ‘not knowing what to say,’ it’s no wonder that our scenes are overflowing with words and that the lines start overlapping.
Factor Three: Rambli-
People don’t shut up. Sometimes this is partly a symptom of being interrupted a lot. If we know that someone is going to cut us off, we learn to just talk and talk and talk and talk… until someone cuts us off.
But it’s also that people don’t know when to stop. They go on and on and on and everyone else has no choice but to interrupt. And sometimes that comes from people liking their own voice (I say, very aware of the irony of making that comment in the middle of a six-minute monologue), but also we settle into a familiar rhythm of default line length. Everything should be the same length long.
It can also be an issue of control – we hold onto the ball for as long as we can because we’re scared of what might happen when we let go.
There’s also sometimes a belief that expressing an idea in more words necessarily makes it a stronger idea, like a sort of homeopathic dialogue. And so we end up improvising by exhaustively detailing what our character thinks, rather than doing things that someone with those thoughts would do.
Factor Four: Sidetracki-
People interrupt scenes to bring in their own gag or twist or to comment on what’s been said. Sometimes this manifests as
Wait wait wait, you’re telling me that [insert some logical inconsistency here]
But the most common scene pattern I see goes something like this:
Person A: Grandpa, there’s something I need to tell you.
Person B: Yes hang on, just let me adjust my hearing aid, it was set to FM radio.
Person A: Your hearing aid can pick up the FM radio?
Person B: Yes, I’ve been listening to the top 40. I want to be a pop star just like that Billie Eilish.
Person A: You want to be a musician? Have you written any songs?
Person B: Yeah, I release things on SoundCloud, I’ve been collabing with some mumble rappers.
(At this point a third person enters)
Person C: I’m Simon Cowell. Grandpa Antonio, I want YOU on The X Factor.
And so we have this crazy tale of Grandpa Antonio and his adventures on The X Factor, but we never found out what his grandchild wanted to tell him in the first place. Now, can we follow the shiny thing? Sure! (But let’s not lose sight of the audience’s view of the story.) Is it possible Person A didn’t have any idea of what they were going to say? Absolutely! (But how will we know if we don’t let them try? And what if they come up with something magical by stepping into the unknown?) Might the Grandpa Antonio pop saga be more interesting than what Person A was going to say? Maybe! (But should our ethos really be ‘My joke is better than your joke/idea/character/story’? That’s not great either.)
I’m not saying ‘Never interrupt anyone ever.’ Sometimes it’s a great character choice. Sometimes it’s a fun game to play. Sometimes it’s what the scene needs. (Also, the search for absolutes in improv is fundamentally misguided.)
But instead, focus on how we can support each other, focus on how we can find new ways to express ourselves in scenes, and focus on how we can give each other space to play.
Thank you very much.
The write-up of the talk was made possible by my supporters on Patreon. Maybe consider joining them?
If you want to read more about improv theory, also check out my article in the (free!) first issue of Present Monthly, or consider buying Patti Stiles’ new book Improvise Freely (which I worked on as an editor).