In a recent blog post, I quoted writer/director Adam McKay talking about what he learned from Del Close while working with him in the 1990’s at iO Chicago. Adam said that Del would make you: “… go to your third thought. When you’re onstage, your first thought is knee-jerk. Your second thought is usually okay, but not great. Del would make you stay in a scene until you found your third thought, which was a little above and beyond what most other teachers would suggest.” A reader of my blog post commented, “I don’t know about that third thought thing.” And it’s that reader’s questioning that got me to thinking and wanting to delve more deeply into Del’s teachings and “to riff”, so to speak, off of Adam McKay’s excellent thoughts.

My insights into what Del had up his sleeve come out of the extraordinary creative rapport he and I shared through the years, and a symbiotic technique that evolved early on, when I often served, in essence, as Del’s human “sketch pad”. When Del was trying to explain ideas he wanted to explore on stage, and the explanation wasn’t coming across to the group, he’d stop his rapid fire talking and yell “Greenberg, get on stage!” Del would walk me through the idea. He called on me to put it “on its feet” and then the other actors, having a clearer idea, based on my execution of what Del meant, would get up and take a shot. It was an efficient system.

Yeah, Del and I connected pretty closely. Now, back to the “third thought.” Another way to approach this concept is to revisit TWO of Del’s most fundamental directions:

1) “Play the silences.” Del insisted: “There’s more happening in the moments of silence on stage, then you can ever invent, no matter how clever you are.”

2) “Follow the fear” was originally explained with Del adding: “The most interesting place to go in the scene is exactly where you feel the most psychologically uncomfortable going.”

Point # 1: To slow down and allow for moments of silence, is often talked about, but NOT too often put into action. The “playing the silences” direction is key to good improvisation and good communication. Practicing going to “the third thought” is part and parcel of that process. Though it can feel contrary to the fast and furious pace of what’s happening on stage (or in any given interchange out in the world), when you allow for a silences to exist, and take the moment to observe your thought process, you allow for the possibility to move from just reacting to truly “responding.” So, one good way to serve the improvisation when it’s moving fast is, counter intuitively, to take your time. In the process, you are playing (thank you Del again for this one) “at the top of your intelligence.”

Point # 2: It’s not easy to go past the first thought, outside your comfort zone, beyond your sure-fire bag of tricks and schticks. It can be scary as hell. Enter the direction: “Follow the fear.” By going to “the third thought” you might fear that you’re risking losing the audience, or losing the argument, or losing the laugh. No worries! Taking that risk leads to better listening, more interesting and unlikely choices, and an active state of true exploration. The other actors and the audience will not be bored – far from it! They will stay engaged. So “following the fear” ups your chances to go deeper, to elevate your game and elevate everyone’s game.

Del’s “third thought” direction also addresses what improvisers and artists have a responsibility to do – to connect in the deepest way possible, to yourself, your fellow players, and the audience. Committed to that task, you become more anchored in the present, more trusting of, and more trusted by the other actors, and more adept in the face of change. The laughs will come as the audience recognizes their own humanity in the stumbling and fumbling towards real communication. That willingness and courage to focus on real communication goes to the essence of what Del Close’s vision and work were really all about.