There’s an exercise I’ll call “Heat and Weight.“ I am stealing it from T.J. Jagadowski:
Stand facing a partner, and think of an impossibly specific relationship and situation. Not, “We’re sisters,” but, “We’re sisters, and I’m 15 and you’re 18, and I need your advice because I might be in trouble, but I’m also afraid you’re going to tell mom and dad and get me in MORE trouble.” Then, for about one minute, stare at your partner and try to communicate this information with your eyes. Don’t talk or pantomime. Just stare. Then ask your partner if she got it.
Your partner probably won’t get it verbatim. But she might get, “We’re coworkers, and you’ve messed something up on a report, and you need me to cover for you, but you’re also afraid I might rat her out to our boss.” But can you see how that’s basically the same relationship (heat) and the same stakes (weight)?
Switch partners and try again. Then try it where both of you are giving and receiving at the same time. Then try it again, but go straight into a scene after the minute of silence. Shrink that minute to thirty seconds, and do it again. Shrink that thirty seconds to fifteen, and do it again. Shrink that moment of silence, but don’t skip it.
Once you’ve done it a few times, it’s barely even an exercise. It’s just how you start scenes. The what and where and why will come if it needs to, but eye contact will help you establish who you are to each other without all of that expository nonsense in the first few lines.
If you’ve seen T.J. and Dave, a moment of quiet eye contact is how they begin their shows. In Jimmy Carrane’s interview with T.J., T.J. says:
“You can’t really talk yourself to clarity, you usually have to quiet yourself to clarity. When you try to talk yourself to the next thing you know about each other, it sounds like you’re searching for that thing.
They talk about who, what, where … Give me who, give me a little more who, start to solidify your who some more, give me some more who on this. Maybe we’ll find out where where is, I don’t know what a what is. I still don’t know what the what is, so. Now you’re there. Let’s get back to who and who and who and who and who. …
[The who] is how those two people are in that moment, in that time with each other. … Fathers and sons behave like colonels and sergeants, and fathers and sons behave like best friends, and fathers and sons behave like sons and fathers reversed, so the title does not suffice.”
Listen to that episode of Improv Nerd here. The whole hour is interesting, but the last 10 minutes or so are gold.
We’re improvisers, not journalists. Let’s get back to who and who and who and who and who.