Tonal Agreement

art by Caitlin Sacks

At the top of the scene, what you say is not nearly as important as how you say it.

Everyone focuses too much on the words when they’re doing improv. Everyone gets logical. That’s a trap. In real life, when we talk to each other, we are listening WAY WAY more to the sound of the words then the words themselves.

So, you know, do that in improv. Listen to the sounds of the words. As a human, you are really really good at this. So do it.

Let’s call it TONAL AGREEMENT.

Someone is speaking frantically? Then respond with care. Or maybe with your own franticness. Or maybe with some distance, if you feel freaked out by the franticness. Whatever it is, it should be motivated — instinctually — by HOW the other person is talking.

That’s TONAL AGREEMENT.

I’ve been doing improv for 10,000 years and I really do not think too much at the top. I either say something with a little feeling, or I listen to how it sounds. I let myself just react — not too big — to the tone. I start my thinking after a few lines, once things have come into focus a bit.

If someone says “Isn’t it a shame?” I’m going “I know, it’s terrible” before I even have any idea of what we’re talking about.

Isn’t that jumping the gun, you think? No! It’s just being a human being.

You know what else? The tone of the first line is more important than the suggestion. I see people really focusing on that suggestion too much. Like this.

Suggestion: Pencil

First line: “Isn’t it a shame?” (they’re inspired, maybe, by the idea of an eraser and making a mistake)

Second line: “Yeah, we lost all of our pencils!”

Doesn’t that just suck? They ignored the tone. They focused on the suggestion, in a very literal way. Okay, it doesn’t totally suck. But it sounds fake. And in a way, the second person is not really listening, not with their full human brain and heart.

Better second line: “Oh I know, it’s the worst. So terrible. We lost all our pencils!”

Still forced, but at least they seemed to have felt the rhythm of the conversation.

Exercises

There’s two good exercises for practicing tonal agreement.

  1. GIBBERISH SCENES. People do scenes but speak in gibberish. Since there’s no real words, all you have to go on is tone. Let the scenes be short, like 2 minutes. After you stop, have each person share what they felt was going on. The specifics will be different, but everyone will agree on the general dynamic between the people.
  2. CRYPTIC INITIATIONS. People do scenes, but the first line — the initiation — should be short and vague. Cryptic, meaning, “huh? What’s that mean?” You then go for another minute, figuring out what’s going on. Examples of cryptic initiations:
  • “Well, the dogs are taller.”
  • “So much ice! Too much.”
  • “I told Jason he needs a wagon.”

After an initiation like this, you will naturally spend the next few lines figuring out what’s happening. You will be going on tone. You have to. There’s not enough words in the initiation to spell it out. You’ll be surprised how easily you make decisions and know what to say after an initiation like this.

Don’t Underestimate This

I feel like this advice seems so obvious that people might just dismiss it. Like “Oh, I already do that.” But I bet you don’t. I teach improv 100 hours a day, and I have since the early 1800s, and I see this all the time: people do not sound like they are really talking to each other. One person speaks, the other takes all the words into their brain, looks at them, overthinks them, and then responds with something insane.

First line: “I love pizza.”

Second line: “But we’re here at the factory and we’re married!”

You’re not supposed to say there are wrong moves, but that second line is the wrong move. You are fighting uphill after that line. Don’t act like you haven’t done that, either. I know I have.

Okay, thank you for reading this essay.

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Will Hines

Los Angeles, actor, improviser, amateur computer programmer. Born in 1970, largely nice. Founder of http://www.wgimprovschool.com/