What is showing and telling in improv?

You don’t have to be doing improv for long before you hear the note, “Show don’t tell.” It’s a great note, but what does it really mean and how do you and your partner pull each other out of that hole when you sense it is happening?

Telling instead of showing means you are doing a lot of only talking about what you are going to do in the future, or did in the past. You know how people tell stories that you don’t really find as entertaining as they do, and then they say, “You had to be there.” Yep, in improv we have to be there. If it’s interesting enough for your characters to be talking about, it’s certainly interesting enough for us to see it.

You might also get the note, “Start in the middle.” That’s exactly what show don’t tell means. Conversations between two people planning their day could be interesting, but odds are it probably won’t be. (It’s OK, you’re still talented.) Let’s get to the part where they are grocery shopping and see what happens. Much better than seeing them create a shopping list. (Unless that shopping list is wacky and random!)

The Visual Impact

When we’re talking about things we’re going to do, our stage picture is typically two people with their feet planted having a conversation. That can be pretty boring. It is way more interesting for us to see someone’s life play out on stage.

Environment and object work are crucial elements of improv, not optional elements. If you are always standing and talking, odds are you probably aren’t doing anything. Not all scenes can be two people standing in line for something.

This is easy to avoid if we initiate scenes with movement. Audiences are right there with us when we create a world on stage. Even more so when you help them visualize it. So just get up and do something. Starting with an action, using an object, or some other type of movement that defines your space is a non-verbal gift to your partner. You just gave yourselves a starting point without saying a word and that’s pretty cool, guys!

Just go there

OK, so you’re in a scene and you’re talking about doing something. It is easy enough to get out of. Literally edit the scene with a time-dash and just make your two characters be where you are talking about.

Actor 1
“Yeah, we should go up to that Volcano and climb in”

Actor 2
“I hear it is pretty dangerous. I don’t know if that’s a good idea. Maybe we should buy protective gear first.”

Actor 1, sensing the telling not showing, verbally edits the scene in a way that isn’t distracting, but clearly indicates we are jumping to a new location.

Actor 1
“We’re now at the dangerous volcano.”

Boom, look how easy that was! Instead of showing great consternation on taking a journey, we just go ahead and start that mother effing journey. You won’t lose any improv artistry points for forcing the action. As a matter of fact, recognizing that you are telling and not showing and DOING SOMETHING about it is an advanced move. Trust your gut and take your audience with you.

You don’t have time to plan

Planning gets people into trouble. The first few scenes in a set do not need exposition to build up to something. Those kinds of scenes again wind up being two people planting their feet and talking about the future.

It isn’t going to help anyone to plan 20 moves into the future. Since we’re doing improv, we have no idea what interesting thread we’ll be going down. Who says that you’ll ever even come back to the characters that you are trying to set up for something very specific later in the set? Who says what you are planning is going to still make sense in the context of the show 5 minutes later?

You have to live in the moment and trust yourself to bring in elements from earlier in the set naturally, if it even makes sense to do that at all. Create your sets by reacting to what’s happening in the moment.

You’re Awesome

You’re a real life human full of life experiences. It is plenty to draw from those to initiate scenes and see where they go. Can’t think of an easier way to avoid the talking trap when you can do something on stage you’ve lived before.

Hopefully this all makes sense and you feel just a little bit more equipped to take one of the most recurring notes in improv and run with it. Go forth and do stuff!