Talking head scenes have gotten a bad rap. Like transaction and teaching scenes they are broadly considered bad form regardless of their actually content. The attitude I encounter a lot is this: A successful talking head scene (or transaction scene or teaching scene) would have been even funnier if it hadn’t been just two people standing around talking (or transacting or teaching). The truth I believe is that “talking heads” gets blamed when the true culprit is usually just lousy improv.
Talking heads is a label put on scenes that feature two actors being generally physically inert and talking about what’s going on rather than engaging in the activity discussed. (The notion of activity is a tricky one in improv, mostly because those of us without acting backgrounds have a different understanding of what activity and action mean. Another post perhaps…) Based on that definition there are a ton of poor scenes that you might be familiar with. Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch is mostly standing around being witty. The “Here’s looking at you, kid.” scene from Casa Blanca is mostly static (although perhaps movies are unfair because the camera moves). The Romeo and Juliet balcony scene is completely static. I bet all of the court room action of A Few Good Men looked a lot more static in it’s original stage production. Are these terrible talking heads scenes?
Let’s stop blaming talking head scenes. As teachers and directors it is our job to dig deep, certainly beyond a plainly apparent decision of staging, and figure out why a particular scene didn’t work. Giving blanket directions to avoid talking head scenes gives students a false hope that if they have a physicality, any physicality, even something external to the characters experience in the moment, that they will succeed. Yes, this is theater, and we need to be conscious of the picture we are presenting the audience. Flat and stagnant staging, however, is it’s own problem, independent (mostly) from how the scene is played.
Try these side coaching notes to break up stagnant staging and force more visceral play. The understood notion is that they all must take place after the other players next line. (Some of these are kind of involved and I’ll explain them all to the class and make sure they’re clear before we start so they’re prepared.)
“After your partners next line…”
- “Break eye contact with your partner and don’t give it back until they earn it.”
- “Take a walk. Keep giving your lines but something they said compels you to move.”
- “Substitute your next line with a physical gesture. A shrug, a sigh or a deep exhale for instance.”
- “Your next set of words will be accompanied by specific, unique gestures.”
- “Don’t respond to your partner at all. You can look at them or look away.”
(The original draft had a thing about radio dramas being the ultimate talking head experience. Radio dramas got me thinking about monologues and spoken word stuff. Too far from the topic but I thought I’d include some examples. It get’s performance-arty, you’ve been warned. Spalding Grey, Joe Frank, and a Del Close favorite, Ken Nordine )