A common piece of advice for initiating an improv scene is "start in the middle". The idea is that if you want to do a scene about an unusual dog at a pet store, the initiation of "I'm afraid the dog is still full price even though half of it is stuffed" is much more effective than "Hi, welcome to the pet store". The former gets to the meat of your premise right away, while the latter requires a good amount of meandering and patience from your scene partner (who might try to move the scene in a completely different direction altogether). "Start in the middle", in short, means "get to the point".
This is great advice for scenes where we have a full or even partial premise in mind, but what happens when we find ourselves at the top of a scene without an idea ready to go? We look up expectantly at our scene partner only to see them looking expectantly back at us.
"Uh oh", we think. "We've got nothing."
This can be a terrifying moment. Uncertainty is scary, especially when we feel we don't have anything to hold onto. We might start to panic; going into our heads to think of a weird thing to say, or reaching out for some indeterminate object in the hopes that some sort of activity might give us more time to think. What we often don't realize is this -
The simple act of being onstage with another person is all we need to start a scene.
In the film Memento, Guy Pearce's character suffers from a condition that prevents him from forming new memories. Every time he "comes to" he has forgotten everything about the events leading up to that moment. He has no idea how he got to where he is, or if he has ever met the person he is talking to before. Even the people he sees every day are completely forgotten when his memory resets. His condition forces him to constantly rely on context clues; to become an expert in finding meaning in the smallest details.
Here's an example where his memory resets in the middle of a chase:
Notice that Pearce starts with self-examination - "Okay, so what am I doing?" He finds himself running but doesn't know why. Also notice that despite not knowing why he's running, he doesn't stop. That's the key. He knows his memory is faulty but he still inherently trusts himself.
So instead of "Why am I running? I'll stop and figure it out."
He thinks "I'm running. It must be for a good reason. I will keep running and that reason will reveal itself to me shortly."
And it does.
If we approach our "nothing" scenes with this mindset - that we're where we are doing what we're doing for a reason -they suddenly become a lot less terrifying. We know we're supposed to be there, we just haven't quite uncovered the specifics. And just like in Memento, we can do that using context clues.
If we take a moment to observe closely we can find meaning in the smallest details.
How are we standing and what does that mean about our attitude or emotional state? Do we have our hand in our pocket because we're nervous or because we're grabbing some change for a vending machine? Are we squinting slightly because it's bright or because we're suspicious of something? What does the distance between ourselves and our scene partner mean about the space we're in or the intensity of our relationship? Is their smile one of sincerity or politeness? What can we infer from the smallest movement or subtlest posture?
When we have nothing, everything is a gift.
Try to be comfortable with the idea that these types of scenes can start a little slow as we dedicate those first few moments to observation, so resist the urge to panic.
It's also not the time to be polite or coy. If the context clues tell us we're on a beach, say it and make it real. Don't wait and hope our scene partner reads the clues the same way.
Conversely, it's also not the time to be stubborn. If we think we're on a beach but our scene partner cements us at a bank, they're right. Understand that our first instincts only carry us as far as reality permits. Guy Pearce thought for sure he was the one doing the chasing until his scene partner pulled a gun on him.
An interesting thing about this approach is that it almost always forces us to "start in the middle" even if we weren't intending to do so. When we're looking for meaning in the smallest details, our mind frames things differently. The first few moments aren't about looking forward to try to figure out what the scene could be, they're about looking backward to see what the scene already has been. What did we say to make our scene partner look at us in this specific way? What did we do that got us to this specific position in space and time?
Finding meaning in nothing allows us to step into the middle a scene that had already begun before we even found ourselves onstage. Our job from there is simply to play the rest of it out.