I can’t help you with your listening. If you come to my diagnostics classes, we won’t be working on your listening. Instead, I want to get you out from under the burden of your listening.
Improvisers are overachievers, especially in regards to their listening. That’s because they confuse listening with hearing EVERYTHING and understanding EVERYTHING perfectly. This is a level of awareness people just don’t achieve in any aspect of their lives: not on dates, not with their families, or job interviews, or in the classroom. However, when improvisers get on stage, they pressure their ear-brain connection to bat 1,000 every time. As a result, they focus more on what information they might be missing than what they’re actually hearing.
The first step to better listening is to recognize this: humans are bad at it. We listen very particularly. We filter things, dismiss information regularly, and support our own worldviews. If we embrace this fact about humans, it makes it so much easier and more fun to improvise. Your character will hear information in a way that fits its own worldview.
“We’ve never been to a place like this before.”
Newer improvisers get a stress tingle when they hear a line like this. Where are we? Does my scene partner know where we are? Is this “place” good or bad?
That’s where you need to step up. You need to interpret the line and run with it. Think about how often you get a one-word suggestion from the audience and immediately start launching into a full world idea from it. Well, here’s NINE words and you’re not giving yourself the same permission.
Different people will have different interpretations to this opening line, because they’ll have different responses to what resonates about it for them. Some will join in on the presumed joy of being in this “place”. Some will focus on “We” and the implied history of this couple. Others will question the line’s sincerity altogether.
When you allow for this filter, which will feed your character’s worldview, you more easily discover what you’re listening for.
I know we all want to yes and, a wonderful intention that sometimes gets in the way of our playing, because we’re too worried about yes and-ing everything. That’s the crutch of focusing on listening. We are there to spotlight things about each other and that spotlight can’t cover everything. That kind of defeats the purpose of a spotlight.
If you and I were to do a scene together and I come out with a full character, you show me through your choice what was most interesting about it to you. It could be the content of my dialogue, but it could also be the distance we are standing from each other, or it could be by matching my emotion or playing opposite to my physicality. In doing this, you’re not saying that the content of my dialogue is irrelevant. You are pointing out the other things (perhaps something I wasn’t even aware of in my choice) that are engaging you.
Full disclosure: you might make a choice that was different from what I intended. It happens. As I said, humans are bad at communication. Things will be misunderstood or, more accurately, differently understood.
Here’s the secret: anything that goes wrong, blame it on your character. If there is a misunderstandings or something gets misinterpreted or misheard, just blame it on your character. It‘s the character you’re playing that is having a limited understanding or inappropriate reaction or is so self-involved that they missed that piece of information.
So, instead of questioning your listening, connect strongly and see what it is that you are naturally hearing because truthfully, improv is not as much about the information as the interpretation.