Listen up comedy homies; it’s time to talk a little bit about listening. In case you were wondering what those two sound holes placed symmetrically on either side of your head were, those are called ears, and we humans use ears to listen to the wonderful world around us. Certain other, more disgusting, humans may also use those same holes for sticking freshly, spit-covered fingers inside of as a prank, but we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here to talk about listening. Some humans are far better at listening than others. Case in point: the waiter I had at the Corner Bakery last week. Not such a good listener. Because when I said “No pickles, please,” he heard, “Boy, I KNOW you have pickles back in that kitchen. PLEASE, help a girl out and just give her all the dills and gherkins you got!”
See, listening is an acquired skill that takes actual practice to perfect. And just as with any other learned skill, like juggling or noodle-making or Ukranian egg art (look that shit up, it’s crazy), if you don’t take the time to actively and effectively engage your brain to do them, those skills become progressively harder to perform over time. As the popular saying goes: You use it or you lose it, baby.
Active listening. Real listening. The type of listening where you’re mentally present in a conversation, using analytical skills to process what’s being said to you, not interrupting, not being distracted by someone texting you boss cat memes, and when the time is right, finally delivering an emotionally and contextually accurate response, that, comedy friends, takes practice. Lucky for us improvisers, though, the art of improv comedy helps us hone our ear-hole talents to their fullest.
Along with the “yes and...” tenet, improv is also built on a solid foundation of active listening. Ideally, the goal during any given scene should be to concentrate on and really listen to your scene partner’s message, not just wait for them to stop talking so you can say whatever it is you’ve had planned in your head since you stepped on stage. That’s the model scenario at least. But, I’m not gonna lie, I am an improv youngin’still, so from time to time I toss improv idealism to the wind and vomit out whatever’s been floating in my brain space without focusing on the information that has just been relayed to me.
With that said, however, I have noticed, as my improv journey has progressed, a slight improvement in my listening abilities both in and outside of class. I’m no Matt Murdock or Bionic Woman or anything, but I am noticing that my hearing is stronger, I’m retaining more verbal information, and I’m able to have deeper conversations and make deeper connections with people.
In addition, I think other people may also be starting to notice my improved listening skillz, which brings me to a quick story about a homeless man I met on the DART one afternoon, who may or may not be God. After reading the title, you’ve probably been wondering when the homeless man was gonna show up. Well, the time is now, people! We have arrived!
After Ewing practice a couple Saturday’s ago, I boarded the DART, as usual, to make way back home...or in this case, back to my car parked somewhere in the depths of downtown Carrolton. Normal train etiquette dictates that when a train car is totally empty, and there are dozens of open seats available, a stranger should not take the seat directly beside somebody already sitting (that somebody is me btw). But this particular homeless guy didn’t conform to normal train etiquette. No, he played by his own rules, and he plopped down in the seat next to me.
Upon taking a seat, the man turned to me and said, “I’m homeless, I’m gay, and I am just havin’ a blessed day.” That order. I smiled politely and thought to myself, “Did I just have my own New In Town experience?!” The homeless man proceeded to tell me that he had been looking for someone to talk to all morning, and he could tell, based on of my “beautiful aura”(I have no clue what that actually means, but I’m hoping it's street code for improv skillz that are noticeable in real life), that I’d be willing to hear him out.
And so, for the next 45 minutes, I did the unthinkable. I sat, closed my mouth, and I listened. I listened intently to the man’s story, soaking in all the details. And, partially, I also listened for Joan Osborne to pop out from the shadows with a guitar in hand because the guy was giving off some major Joan of Arcadia set-up vibes. But, for 45 minutes he described to me how his situation came to be, how he had slipped through society’s cracks, how people at the shelters were often judgmental toward his sexuality, and the many other struggles of life on the streets. It was interesting and heartbreaking and all I could do was smile, nod, and absorb his words like a little non-homeless-train-riding sponge human.
I thought at some point he’d ask me for money or help or something, but he never did. He simply just wanted to talk and have somebody listen. Not half listen, but actively listen. When the train pulled up to the homeless man’s stop, he thanked me for allowing him to share his story with me. He also said that once he gets his life on track he’d come find me and make me a “super star.” I laughed and said OK.
Then, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a bottle of sparkly, silver nail polish and handed it to me as a token of his gratitude (why he had nail polish in his pocket, the world may never know). I turned the bottle over and read the label on the bottom: “Super Star Status.”
He left and I sat bewildered, thinking, “I’m pretty sure I just talked to God, and now I really have to share this with my Ewing teammates!” My listening abilities, like the Grinch’s heart, may have grown three sizes that day, I’m not sure. What I am sure of, though, is that developing the habits of a good listener is something that we improvisers could and should continue to work on. Listening to one another is our way of showing commitment to and fostering trust of our scene partners...or homeless men we meet on trains.
Lauren Levine is currently a Level 4 student at DCH. When she is not trying to come up with witty things for this blog, she is a freelance writer and editor, an amateur photographer, a Zumba-enthusiast, a dog lover, and an 80s movie nerd. In addition, she enjoys all things Muppet-related, the smell after a rainstorm, and people with soft hands.