The Waiting Room: A Non-Verbal Exercise

Set Up:  A doctor’s waiting room:  one 3-seater couch, 2 chairs, a coffee table, some magazines.

Purpose:  working with silence among strangers; concealing or revealing illness; creating and adapting to tension; spontaneity and presence.

Scenario:  6 actors-as-out-patients waited for the surgery to open.  They were to choose their own reason for being there.  They had never met one another.   They entered from the street when the bell rang and waited for their appointment.   On the opposite side of the waiting room to the entrance was the doctor’s door.   When the doctor buzzed, one patient entered.  The order was decided – non verbally and in the waiting room – by the patients themselves.

After a period of time of my choosing – normally one to five minutes – the appointed patient would leave the doctor’s room and exit back to the street through the waiting room.   At the next buzz, the second patient would enter the surgery.   And so on.

A wrap-up discussion ensued.

Result:  High-quality verisimilitude and presence.   The patients arranged to enter the office in the order in which they entered the waiting room.   With six patients and five seats the patient who chose to stand paced nervously, eyes flickering, arms tense; another patient sat at one end of the couch and hid her face; the others picked up magazines, settling slowly into their seats.  One patient decided to discreetly ‘check out’ another.  One kept looking at the doctor’s door.

I kept the first patient in the doctor’s room for 5 minutes.  I then waited a further five minutes after they had left before buzzing in the second, which caused some enjoyable irritation.  For the fourth patient, I chose to ramp up the tension.  Once she had entered the doctor’s room, I asked her to count to ten and then scream ‘No!’   She then walked straight out through the waiting room and back onto the street.

This immediately changed the emotional dynamic of the room.  The two remaining patients wanted to approach their departing colleague.  Having failed, they began to take in one another more seriously.   I made them wait a further five minutes for the buzz.  When this came, they gestured to the other to go first, ‘no, really, after you…’: an excellent spontaneous reaction.   Once the fifth was in, I asked them to repeat the actions of the fourth patient and scream ‘No!’ before leaving immediately.   On hearing the final buzz, the lone sixth patient exited to the street instead of keeping the appointment.

There was lots of minimal movement and signification; tension was immediately apparent, though the magazines were a good distraction.  The patients made no effort to get to know one another until patient four left hurriedly after her outburst.  This provided for a fascinating empathic connection, actioned in the eyes of the remaining two, with slight head and hand movements.  Patient six’s choice to leave before seeing the doctor was darkly humorous, the tension being abated by her obvious – yet illogical – decision.