Beyond Words by Thomas Trinh

My personal deep-dive into the mantra: Show, Don’t Tell. . . And why I am no longer interested in doing improv my parents can’t enjoy.

By Thomas Trinh

This holiday season I spent with my family in Washington D.C.  Being the capital, it had a myriad of things to do and see, but I am not much for sightseeing.  So, after we exhausted the many tourist sites and ate all the food in the city, my sister suggested maybe we do something I wanted to do. . . go to an improv show!  My initial feelings were of unfettered joy! Improv is the reason I breathe and I hadn’t yet seen what D.C. improv had to offer, but I was pumped to learn! Then. . . a morose cloud overtook me as I began to think of my parents. . .

A Little Context

Context. My parents are Chinese-Vietnamese immigrant refugees, so you could say my life is a little different. Communication issues go beyond just understanding each other’s point of view, it’s generational, cultural, and verbal. I didn’t grow up speaking the native languages of either of my parents, because of the circumstances, we have had to compromise at an elementary english speaking level.  So we can’t fully express or share the intimate words we would like to convey our feelings. Forcing me to become versed in other communication methods, when words failed. Touch and physical expression being the most important. . . and also a ton of vague cooking/restaurant analogies.

Back to My Parents

. . . would they understand my love of improv? Would they even know what was happening. . . Growing up I played a lot of sports, my father came to a handful, but never my mother, she said, “. . .because I wouldn’t understand the game.” I didn’t know why they weren’t like the other parents, but this goes beyond just understanding a game, it’s about feeling comfort and control in a strange land. I didn’t make a big deal of it, but I was still disappointed. Eventually I became ambivalent to their participation in my extra curricular life. Since I moved to Atlanta, I’ve dealt with feeling out of place at more parties than I care to remember, but until I experienced and recognized the sheer isolation society had to offer, could I even begin to empathize. Their comfort and peace of mind was more a priority than my All-American Full House expectations. I understand now, and don’t fault them for not attending a stupid soccer game.

Cut to the Show!

With a little research we found the Washington D.C. Improv Theater, presenting the WIT Roadshow featuring: LUXman, Dear Diary, High-Fivers, and IRL. We seat ourselves in a small theatre in the back of an art gallery. As we watch the groups perform I periodically lose focus, worrying whether my parents are enjoying themselves. I check in with them to see some smiles, but mostly the familiar glaze of cluelessness. I get a little discouraged, but not surprised. I was very impressed with the show. Overall, a good night of improv, but one act in particular floored me, the duo who opened, LUXman. They get the suggestion of “camping” and from the moment the lights come up I am dying watching one of the improvisors. They displayed a constant flow of celebration and arousal of not only their scene partner, but camping, marshmallows, accounting, tetherball. . . Though they were a wiz with their words creating depth, specificity, and context, they offered much more. They communicated through their posture, mannerisms, tone, environment, object work, touch, and proximity to their scene partner, it was magnificent. Why do I gush? Because that improvisor was my mother’s favorite performer of the night. She had little to mention about the other groups, not because they weren’t talented, but because they were unable to take care of her, as a member of the audience.

Taking Care of the Audience

A kernel of Improv wisdom I keep from an instructor, Amanda Rountree, is to “take care of the audience.” This was in reference to generously using the suggestion, explaining to the audience what they are about to witness, and presenting the information with clarity.  I saw it carry Rountree’s group, The Unscripted Shakespeare Ensemble, to winning the 2017 Atlanta Improv Battle. They got three suggestions and used the crap out of them. The audience lost their minds, it was great. Most importantly it showed the efficacy of taking care of the audience, while simultaneously maintaining a quality show.  Along the way I have heard the opposite mentality to “fuck the audience,” i.e. not taking or using the suggestion or providing show information. I am not a big proponent of this idea, the lack of clarity shows elitism, fear, and selfishness, which has no place in art. I have seen shows work without suggestions or explanations, but they took care of the audience in other ways. Whether it was clear narratives or a well practiced forms, the audience could still follow.

Focusing On Behavior

It sounds as though I’m at war with words, granted I am tired of high concept wordy improv (We get it, you’re real fucking smart and clever), but why rely so heavily on just words?  In loo of a verbal frenzy, I have been focusing on behavior. An all encompassing term for the movement, emotion, and relation to others, and yet can live and breath absent of language. We are so in love with behavior, America’s favorite pastime is people watching. We are endlessly entertained by people just existing with no context beyond what you can see and postulate, and it is quite satisfying. Can we not just perform by the same principles? Lead with assumed lives, relationships and influenced actions! I had the privilege of attending a workshop with Dave Pasquesi,  and he shared the philosophy of Heat & Weight. Heat being the nature of the relationship, not based on established labels and Weight being the way or tone a message is delivered, not focusing on the specifics. This technique focuses on being affected by the “how” despite the “what.” The methodology depends on the universal language of behavior. The social part of our humanity overshadows the importance of our basic intuitions and senses. Anybody who has ever been told, “bless your heart” know words are deceiving and can’t always be trusted. Leading with words full of intention and history will guide you much farther than arbitrary sentences that go together


Another technique I find valuable is Viewpoints. This technique explores movement as a major pillar of storytelling, discovery, and partner/environment relationship building. The entire class is absent of language, revealing our intense dependency on words to communicate. Action isn’t met with witty retort or frantic justification, but with visceral behavioral reactions. It’s much easier to find connection and resonance in our senses, they will always speak to us.  So often I see a lack of understanding, because of contextual unfamiliarity, this is where words fall short. I don’t know what the loss of a kingdom feels like, but I can see and feel what the character is experiencing. Keeping me interested and willing to follow, regardless of whether I understand the world. The familiar behavior and visual stimuli are what guide us into the dark and ground us in the world.

Show Don’t Tell

Improvisation comes with it’s difficulties, we are bombarded with so much information we have to justify, that we rely on words as the cure-all. In class, Rountree reiterated to “show, not tell”, like a prophetic squeaky wheel. Referring to anytime we said how we felt or labelled a relationship or talked about our activity.  By telling, and not showing, we live outside of the scene, an invulnerable voyeur plugging in solutions trying to solve for X. It is our way of not fully committing to the scene and though the information is communicated, it lacks authenticity, resonance and connection. Which ends up being poor conveyance, not only with believability, but with those who have difficulty following or understanding the dialogue. By showing, in addition to telling, we economize our improv, not only does it compound our ability to communicate information, but it enhances and textures the words we use. If this is prioritized in our performance, any audience member will be able to follow. If not intimately, then at least on a visceral level.

Leading By Example

I’m in my third year of improv, though I have been obsessively consuming the art. So I end up watching people at all stages of their improv career. Since I started forming opinions, I started noticing common habits of experienced improvisors. Physical storytelling moves are put to the wayside in favor of verbally driven comedy. I’m not saying they aren’t skilled, but what I am saying is they might not be setting a great example for newer performers. Anytime we learn something new, we watch the experienced performers, for methodology and efficacy. If wordy improv is a common theme among the veteran improvisers, then the newer improvisers will associate standing and delivering as the best or most effective, or only way to get laughs. What people might not understand about  veteran performers is they have cultivated that skill over many years and have earned those stripes. They understand what any situation needs to move forward and/or be compelling. Unfortunately, we all have seen a million talking head scenes trying to replicate the stand and deliver they saw friday night. What I have come to realize is that, without advanced theory, it proves difficult to understand the mechanics of success of verbal laden improv. If we focus more on the use of movement and behavior, things are immediately understood, because just existing in the world is enough reference to understand what is happening.

Let’s Not Turn The Audience Away

Do I believe words aren’t important? No, they are definitely valuable and have their place, but I think we need to use everything at our disposal to deliver the best most clear message.  Improv is a beautiful art, you can do anything your heart desires. but with that comes a responsibility to the audience, they’re kind of important. No one should ever be turned away from the experience of live theatre, either as a student, or a member of the audience.

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