Performers – beginners and amateurs especially, but not only – seem to dread silence. After all, we’re supposed to be reciting lines, supposed to have things memorized and rehearsed and ready to run like a well-tuned engine with no sputtering. A lull in the back-and-forth of speech must mean somebody has forgotten something, and we do not want to look like we don’t know what we’re doing. Improvisors, even seasoned ones, go through a similar dread even when unscripted. “If I don’t come right back with response, with the right/clever/funny YesAnd, I’ll look slow. Foolish. Unskilled.”
It’s a terrible lie we tell ourselves. Of course we are not stupid, slow, or unfunny. Yet, silence feels dreadful when you’re in the thick of it on stage. It can feel like failure. And our bodies don’t help matters – “performance adrenaline” is a thing, and it plays hell with our perception of time. Participating in live performance can enhance endorphin, serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline levels in the body, creating an experience of time dilation. A few seconds of silence, a bare blip in the eyes of an audience, seem to stretch on for a lifetime on stage, throwing our doubts and fears into sharp relief. And so, out of personal fears and the misperception of time, we rush things. And if we’re in a particular rush to avoid the lulls, we run the real risk of pulling ourselves, and our audience, out of the scene we have been crafting so carefully, running over one another’s lines and appearing to not pay attention to what’s going on right in front of us. We overcorrect for our fear of silence by appearing to be performers reciting lines in parallel rather than creating a true interaction that suggest a relationship. In the mad rush to not appear unskilled . . . we appear unskilled.
This phenomenon is of course not limited to performers. Humans being the creatures of ego that we are, we are constantly moving through our days having interactions with our fellow humans that mimic this communication in parallel. We engage in conversations that are frequently more transactional than relational – you talk, I talk, you talk, I talk. Studies show that we spend anywhere from 40-60% of our time listening to others, and at the same time we probably only retain about 25% of what we hear. The difference comes about because of the time lag between hearing and comprehending. Now add our tendency towards confirmation bias to the mix. This alone is enough of a recipe for misunderstanding. But we fear silence in our day-to-day communications, too. We fool ourselves into thinking that “if I don’t reply, they’ll think I’m not listening.” And the paradox, of course, is that that silent pause is exactly what’s needed for comprehension and the beginning of true understanding to take root.
When I’m directing a play, I spend a good deal of time working with my actors to find where the silence goes. We learn to lean into the discomfort of it and use it as a tool to establish relationship or mood or to set up the timing for a good joke. We talk about the stage adrenaline factor and how it fools us. And we learn how to breathe through it and let the silence work for us, because there is so much to learn in the quiet moments. Take this scene from Stanley Tucci’s 1996 film, Big Night:
I hold this up as my gold standard for how much can be conveyed without words (I hesitate to say silent here, because the kitchen plays its own incidental score). Even if you’ve never seen the movie before and have no idea what preceded this scene, you learn quite a bit about the relationships among the trio. If you have seen the movie you know about all the chaos and revelation and vitriol that happened the preceding evening between these brothers. And then what goes unspoken has that much more power.
Not too long ago in one of our advanced improv classes, we were struggling with this very issue of sedatephobia (your $.50 word for the day). We were rushing into two-person scenes and letting our desire to be clever and to put our egos in the driver’s seat run away with us. Our frustrated instructor could read what was going on and sat us all down to switch up the exercise.
“OK. Two person scenes, I’ll give you a prompt. And then neither of you talks for at least a minute. You don’t speak until I give you the OK. That should give you more than enough time to think of and discard all the clever things and the one-liners so that you can be in a relationship in the scene. Just be for a minute, then start.”
My friend and I got up. “You’re night watchmen at a warehouse.” We started to walk around our turf. At first, my mind wanted the clever start, the funny line. I ran the tree of possible openers and responses in my head . . . and then I let them go. Pretty soon, we were just walking the warehouse, exploring its boundaries, mapping out the doors and windows, feeling the weight of our flashlights in our hands. We stopped trying to force anything.
“OK, speak when you’re ready.”
We kept walking for a bit. Maybe just a few seconds longer, but who could tell at that point? Then, somewhere behind me, I hear my partner speak.
“So, Sarah and I are thinking about getting the Land Rover.”
I paused and let that soak in.
“That’s a lot of car for two people,” I replied.
“Can you keep a secret? It’s gonna be three soon.”
And we were off to the races, relationship established and the meat of a scene with some real depth acquired.
An active mindfulness relies on a depth of listening we don’t often engage in, a listening to comprehend and to ultimately understand who we are relating to, who we are because we relate to that other, and what we are creating together when we are open to the possibilities of that relationship. It’s a listening that inhabits not only our words, but also the space between our words, the space between our bodies, the air that we share, and every tic and twitch of our bodies. It’s a sort of full-body listening that cannot exist in a mere transaction or in the recitation of lines.
Mindful listening needs room to grow and mature, and it needs us to get over ourselves in order to flourish. It needs the quiet space where we can just be together. It doesn’t have to last a minute, though it wouldn’t be a terrible thing if it did. But even a few extra seconds could give us all the time we need to push past the transaction into the real relationship.
The silent moments are ultimately creative. Generative. And they are nothing to fear.