Category Archives: How To Play

Exercises and games

3 Song Hot Spot

I know Hot Spot is a performance piece in Truth in Comedy, but I use it as an energy- and team-building warm-up, an exercise taking turns in the spotlight. Nobody is in the spotlight for long, and everyone has to get into the spotlight at some point.

In the improv for teenagers class I taught this year, we battled perfectionism and a tendency to separate the kids who were fluent in pop culture from the kids who weren’t. Hot Spot highlighted these pitfalls. Players didn’t want to jump into the middle unless they had the right song to sing. A song that nobody had sung yet, or a song they were sure they remembered all the words to, or a song that would help them fit in.

While everyone spun their wheels on the side, searching their mental playlists for perfect songs, some poor soul had been stuck in the middle for what felt like forever, and he only knew half the chorus to his song.

So I gave them three options: “Bah, Bah, Black Sheep,” “ABC’s,” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

Yeah, those all have the same melody. The point is that everyone knows them, and there’s no way to look cool singing them. The point isn’t to do the perfect thing. It’s to do something.

Suddenly, they were tagging each other out. They were singing at the tops of their voices, with commitment, expression, and silliness. They were singing back-up vocals for each other.

When I launched them straight from 3 Song Hot Spot into a Harold, they worried less about saying the perfect thing in their opening. They listened better and piled onto the game with more energy. They were more playful and less prone to freezing up from trying to be original. They showed more of themselves, and they played the way I want to play.

How to Play: 7’s and 6’s

I taught a group how to play this game a couple of weeks ago, and I always suggest it when I’m practicing with my troupe. Here’s how to play 7’s and 6’s:*

Stand in a circle. Going around the circle, give the person next to you a category, and he has to list seven things in that category. The group keeps count for him enthusiastically. Then he turns to the next person and gives her a new category, and she must list seven things in that new category. She should not worry too much about being correct; the group will count anything she says with confidence. Go around until everyone has gone once.

Then move on to 6’s: Just like before, turn to the person next to you. Instead of a category, though, give them a kind of person. He has to list six things that kind of person would say during the course of a normal day.

Like many exercises, this is easier shown than it is explained. Here are some fictional characters playing it.

Constance: Merricat, give me seven deadly sins.

Merricat: Stealing.

Group: ONE!

Merricat: Gluttony.

Group: TWO!

Merricat: Arson.

Group: THREE!

Merricat: Touching knives.

Group: FOUR!

Merricat: Pride.

Group: FIVE!

Merricat: Nursery rhymes.

Group: SIX!

Merricat: Grounding your kid.

Group: SEVEN! Seven things!

 

Note that not all of the things Merricat said were correct. It does not matter. It matters that she was confident and quick. The group counting aloud helps her keep a rhythm.

After the whole group has had a turn with 7’s, it’s time for 6’s.

 

Julian: Constance, give me six things a lottery winner would say.

Constance: I won?!

Group: ONE!

Constance: I hope my relatives don’t try to take all my money.

Group: TWO!

Constance: Those were my lucky numbers.

Group: THREE!

Constance: We are so happy.

Group: FOUR!

Constance: I need a cup of tea.

Group: FIVE!

Constance: Perhaps I will go outside today.

Group: SIX! Six things!

Note that only some of those things have anything to do with winning the lottery. That’s ok. She’s allowed to say the first thing that pops in her head.

If you’re leading this exercise, encourage your group to:

  • Be fast and obvious rather than slow and clever. We could stall forever while waiting for someone to come up with The Best Idea.
  • Assume that whoever you’re asked to be in 6’s is reasonably competent and happy to be alive. Too many times have I heard someone given “neurosurgeon” and respond, “This is his brain, right? I failed medical school” etc. That gets boring quickly. Which leads to …
  • Allow it to be a normal day. If someone says, “neurosurgeon,” you don’t have to say six things about neurosurgery. On a normal day, a neurosurgeon might order coffee, say hello to his spouse, plan a vacation, forget where he set his keys, read Sherlock fan fiction on his phone, and do any number of other things. That doesn’t make him less of a neurosurgeon; it’s giving him a more fleshed-out life.
  • Let this spill over into their scenes. Characters don’t have to say the most brilliant, hilarious things every line. Most lines can just be the kind of thing that character would say on a normal day, just like 7’s and 6’s. This takes the pressure off players.

During 6’s, players who would normally feel daunted at the idea of inventing a character out of thin air are often surprised when the group cuts them off and cheers after they’ve named their sixth thing. They had more ideas than they thought! Being allowed to be obvious lets people be more creative.

*I recently ran across the phrase “at sixes and sevens” in a book, and I assume the game 7’s and 6’s is a play on the phrase. According to this website, “[At sixes and sevens] is commoner in the UK and Commonwealth countries than in the US. It can mean something that’s in a state of total confusion or disarray, or people who are collectively in a muddle or at loggerheads about how to deal with some situation.” The game 7’s and 6’s has nothing to do with that, but I like knowing where names come from.

Pointing at Things

A few months ago, I substituted for my friend Laura, who teaches art at a classical school. Classical education focuses on memorizing facts in elementary school, applying logic in middle school, and speaking and writing persuasively in high school. So when the lesson plan was to play Surrealist games, some students middle school kids were distressed or dismissive. They were Logic students! They’d been trained to be right, and there’s no way to be right in a Surrealist game.

It made me want to play “Pointing at Things,” so we did. Pointing at Things has three stages:

  1. Point to a thing and say its name. (Point to a chair while saying “chair,” then point to the ceiling while saying “ceiling,” etc.) Be excited about it, and treat it like a race. Lots of speed and energy.
  2. Point to a thing while saying the name of last thing you pointed to. (Point to a window and say, “ceiling,” point to the piano and say “window,” point to your foot and say, “piano,” etc.) Do this until you can do it as fluently and energetically as you could do the first step.
  3. Point to a thing while saying anything but the thing’s name. (Point to your teammate and say, “octopus,” point to a table and say, “sonnet,” point to your glasses and say, “apple,” etc.) Do this until you can do it as quickly and energetically as you could the first step.

People tend to prefer either the second game or the third game. The second game is about memory, and the third game is about spontaneity. I have a theory that the best teams are made up of a mixture of Second Game People or Third Game People.

Most of Laura’s middle school students were Second Game people. I am, too; I suspect that’s more common. I am great at remembering what’s already been said and done and weaving it into what’s happening now. I can see the big picture and the little details that make it up, but I’m liable to get stuck if I have to pull an idea out of thin air. I have to force myself to relax enough to play the third game fluently.

So when I’m on a two-person team, I prefer to be with a Third Game person. This works pretty well for Flash Fiction; my teammate, Brendon, is very much a Third Game person. While he’s fast and spontaneous, I make connections that depend on his memory and focus. We balance one another out, and playing with him challenges me to be more fluent and judge myself less.

The same is true on Circus Police, a newer team I’m playing with. One or two of the players are stronger at the Third Game, the others of us are better at the Second. We balance out in the end.

The Improv Handbook (by Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White) has this to say about what’s going on under the surface of this simple game and why it can be so hard:

“You are used to using your brain like a retrieval mechanism — a biological Google. Give it a well-defined question and it will come back with a well-defined answer (or a well-defined ‘I don’t know’). But this exercise is like typing nothing into the Google search box and expecting ten splendid websites to pop up. It won’t happen! To play this game, you have to treat your brain less like Google and more like a lucky dip (grab bag). Stick a hand in and see what you get. …

What’s also surprising about this game is how easy it is to trigger the learning-anxiety response. This is an utterly trivial game; it cannot possibly reflect on your ability to broker stocks, cure diseases, design buildings, program websites or charm the opposite sex, or however else you tell yourself you are marvelous. Yet very few people initially approach it with anything like the relaxed, positive attitude which it requires, and almost everybody punishes themselves bitterly for what they perceive as a failure.”

Jet Eveleth once gave me the note, “You see the game, you’ve got the big picture; now get out there and do some fucking gayballs shit!” [Don’t hold back. Make weird, bold choices without judging yourself.] Remembering that helps; so does remembering that I’m not a middle school student anymore, so there are no grades.

If you’re better at spontaneity, what helps sharpen your memory and focus? And if you’re better at memory (like me), what helps you loosen up?

Who and Who and Who and Who

There’s an exercise I’ll call “Heat and Weight. I am stealing it from T.J. Jagadowski:

Stand facing a partner, and think of an impossibly specific relationship and situation. Not, “We’re sisters,” but, “We’re sisters, and I’m 15 and you’re 18, and I need your advice because I might be in trouble, but I’m also afraid you’re going to tell mom and dad and get me in MORE trouble.” Then, for about one minute, stare at your partner and try to communicate this information with your eyes. Don’t talk or pantomime. Just stare. Then ask your partner if she got it.

Your partner probably won’t get it verbatim. But she might get, “We’re coworkers, and you’ve messed something up on a report, and you need me to cover for you, but you’re also afraid I might rat her out to our boss.” But can you see how that’s basically the same relationship (heat) and the same stakes (weight)?

Switch partners and try again. Then try it where both of you are giving and receiving at the same time. Then try it again, but go straight into a scene after the minute of silence. Shrink that minute to thirty seconds, and do it again. Shrink that thirty seconds to fifteen, and do it again. Shrink that moment of silence, but don’t skip it.

Once you’ve done it a few times, it’s barely even an exercise. It’s just how you start scenes. The what and where and why will come if it needs to, but eye contact will help you establish who you are to each other without all of that expository nonsense in the first few lines.

If you’ve seen T.J. and Dave, a moment of quiet eye contact is how they begin their shows. In Jimmy Carrane’s interview with T.J., T.J. says:

You can’t really talk yourself to clarity, you usually have to quiet yourself to clarity. When you try to talk yourself to the next thing you know about each other, it sounds like you’re searching for that thing.

They talk about who, what, where … Give me who, give me a little more who, start to solidify your who some more, give me some more who on this. Maybe we’ll find out where where is, I don’t know what a what is. I still don’t know what the what is, so. Now you’re there. Let’s get back to who and who and who and who and who.

[The who] is how those two people are in that moment, in that time with each other. … Fathers and sons behave like colonels and sergeants, and fathers and sons behave like best friends, and fathers and sons behave like sons and fathers reversed, so the title does not suffice.”

Listen to that episode of Improv Nerd here. The whole hour is interesting, but the last 10 minutes or so are gold.

We’re improvisers, not journalists. Let’s get back to who and who and who and who and who.

Newly human and strangely literal

Last week, I went on a walk with my husband, Blade. He is not an improviser, but has been to countless shows, because he is supportive and lovely.

On our walk, I was brainstorming exercises that would help players I’d be guest-coaching that night produce natural, grounded scenes.

Blade, speaking more loudly than usual, said, “We’ve been married, what, two years? A little more than that?”

What?

Blade said, “And now we live in this new neighborhood, because we moved into a house not long ago.”

What are you doing?

Blade said, “I’m holding your hand, because I love you!”

Um, thanks?

Blade’s voice returned to its normal tone. “I’m being an improviser.” He was quite pleased with himself.

He clarified that he wasn’t trying to be a good improviser. He was being a beginning improviser who is trying to establish the who-what-when-where-why of the scene rather than living in the scene.

But that’s what we do when we panic, right? An edit has spit us out on stage, and we don’t know what’s going on, so we rush to clarify everything as fast as we can? With lots of words? “It’s so good to be working here, boss, at my job in this nonprofit office, which you manage, and where I am an underpaid grant proposal writer.”

No one talks that way. It sounds newly human and strangely literal.

I wish I could find a clip of just that scene without awful music behind it, but you get the idea. Anya from Buffy the Vampire Slayer hasn’t been human for very long, so she is not always convincing. She’s all text, no subtext. Most people aren’t like that. So why are so many improv characters like that?

I think the reason we do this in improv is because we know we’re supposed to be humans. In real life, humans just know who we are, where we are, why we’re doing what we’re doing, and who the people around us are to us. Maybe not always on an existential level, but on a basic level. We don’t talk much about it. We just know.

Falling by Numbers

If you’ve done big group trust falls at camp or in an improv workshop, the goal was probably team bonding. I’ve used a version of trust falls I call Falling by Numbers to keep an improv troupe in a state of heightened awareness. Maybe they also bond or whatever, but that’s not something I can control, so I’ve given up trying.

At the beginning of practice, the coach assigns a number to each player. Throughout practice, the coach calls out numbers one at a time, and whoever has that number yells, “Falling!” and falls. Right away. Even if it’s in the middle of a Party Quirks or a Harold. The rest of the troupe catches the faller and lifts her back up. Then the scene or game continues as though nothing had happened.

I’m less interested in developing trust in the faller and more interested in cultivating trustworthiness in the catchers. I want players to grow eyes on the sides of their heads so that they can be ready to run in any direction, at any time, to whomever needs them most in the moment. I want them playing with their whole bodies, not just their faces and voices. You can’t catch someone just by saying, “I’ve got you!” You have to move. I want to see that alertness spill over into how players behave on the sidelines. (Y’all, I have some opinions about sidelines.)

Let’s take for granted that you are playing with the kind of people who would never, ever drop you on purpose. If that’s not true, it’s time to get out of that nightmare troupe* and look for your dream troupe.

A trustworthy troupe will catch you no matter where you fall, but you can help them out by falling well. Keep your eyes open, call “Falling!” loud and clear, and fall toward the center of the room where your teammates have the best chance of catching you.

Basically, the opposite of this:

This comes to mind for me now when I feel old hints of old depression or anxiety symptoms flare up. I might not have any control over whether or not I’m falling, but I can call it out and fall toward my friends instead of away from them. Maybe they’ll catch me, maybe not, but they definitely won’t if I don’t make it clear that I need trustworthy people to be ready just in case.

 

*Third Wheel is the only troupe I’ve ever been in that has dropped someone. It was at our very first show, it was a result of not paying attention or sharing focus well, and it was traumatizing.

How to Play: Throwing a Stick

Throwing a Stick
Get a large stick — a thick dowel rod would work well — and throw it back and forth with your partner.

While throwing the stick, tell a word-at-a-time story. Or talk about your day. Or just make noise. Whatever.

Don’t hit each other in the face. Don’t stop throwing the stick. Do this until just before the boredom sets in.

I’ve been told* that I have four choices for where to be in my scene: My head, my body, my world, or my partners eyes. Three of those things are awesome. One of them sucks. Guess which is which.**

To that end, my friend Brendon and I came up with this simple warm up game to get us out of our analytical brains and into all those other good things.

Another friend, Kevin, and I throw the stick before a show, as illustrated by my husband, Blade.

Throwing the stick makes us move around with our whole bodies.

It allows us to talk and listen without allowing us to judge, because our normal logic is being short-circuited be needing to throw and catch an unwieldy object.

It requires that we make good eye contact if we’re not going to get hit in the face.

Throwing the stick puts us in just a little physical danger — more than a little, if we’re not attentive — which prepares us to take risks.

*Probably by Jet Eveleth.

**It’s the head. The head is the worst option. We all know that, right?

How to Be a Jerk and Have No Fun.

Are you having fun?

If you are not having fun, seriously consider the possibility that you are a jerk.

I’ve created a handy quiz, like in a magazine, to help you figure out if you are the jerk.

Click the picture to see full size.

If improv isn’t fun, it probably has to do with judgment. You’re judging other players, judging yourself, or judging your coach. Judgment is antithetical to acceptance, to YesAnd.

If you are the jerk in the troupe, not only are you sabotaging yourself, but you’re making it hard for your friends to play with you and hard for your coach to direct you, and now nobody’s having fun. Just like you. So congratulations.

The solution to not having fun is to have fun. That means showing up — physically and emotionally — and playing with your fellow artistic geniuses. Having fun doesn’t mean everything will be easy, but who cares if it’s easy if you’re having fun?

For the sake of argument, let’s say I’m wrong about you being a jerk. It really is everybody else’s fault.

It does. not. matter. Have fun.

Even if everyone else really is better than you, have fun. If you’re having fun, your shortcomings won’t matter as much, and you’ll get better faster.

Even if one of your troupe members really is a black hole of comedy, have fun. If you support them anyway, you might be surprised. And even if you’re not surprised, this scene is over in three minutes, so who cares?

Even if your coach is asking you to exercise muscles you didn’t even know you had, have fun. Be sore later, but have fun now.

Even if you think your director is trying to ruin your life by turning your troupe into an extension of his own maniacal ego, have fun. And maybe consider firing him later, but don’t think about that during practice.

I know that middle column of the chart well because I’ve spent some time in all those white boxes leading to JERK. I know that 90% of that was my own fault. The other 10% was the fault of my coaches for not calling me out.

As for that lower left hand quadrant, I’ve written here about playing with depression and here about finding a troupe with a common goal. Do whatever it takes to have fun anyway until it’s time to walk away.

And there is a time to walk away. The good folks over at People and Chairs have an excellent post called On Coaches, Chemistry, and Finding Your Dream Team that talks about this. I recommend reading the full post, but the ending especially is gold (emphasis mine):

At some point, it will be time for you to leave: your team, your Coach, or the theatre company that trained you. This is a good thing.

When you do, try to do it with grace and respect.

That team who liked fast-paced shows while you prefer slowprov? Wish them the best as you both pursue your own interests.

That Coach who drilled you on game of the scene till you wanted to throw a chair? Be thankful for the skills they imparted, and for helping you define your own beliefs.

That theatre company that gave you a start? Say a silent “Shalom” and step aside to make room for some new up-and-comers.

Be grateful for each and every experience, then focus on doing more of what fulfills you. In life, as in the Harold, nothing is ever wasted.

Yes, there is time to walk away. Figure that out with your coaches, your teammates, and your journal outside of practice. During practice, have fun anyway.

Standing in Neutral — or — Just another day with the gremlins

Standing in Neutral

Ideally, you would do this exercise before you had time to get to know your class very well.

One at a time, stand in neutral in front of the group for 45 seconds. Don’t grin, stiffen up, or layer any quirks onto your ol’ regular self. Try your best to be a blank slate.

After those 45 silent seconds, the class should make observations about what unconscious ticks or habits they observed. If this person was a character just as they are, what character would they be?

When you hear your classmate’s thoughts, you’ll want to argue. “But I wasn’t being a character! I wasn’t playing anything! I was in neutral! Where are you getting all of this?”

But the truth is that there’s no such thing as true neutral. My neutral looks radically different from your neutral. We project all kinds of things about ourselves without saying anything. We can control this to some extent by what we wear — for instance, I dress professionally for a job interview so that I will be seen as a professional.

For the most part, though, we’re totally unaware of how we come across to others. If you’re going to do improv, it’s helpful to get a sense of how others see your neutral, because that is how they’re likely to endow you in scenes. If I want someone to see me differently from the way they see my neutral, I have to do something to throw my body, face, and voice out of their normal alignment.

Like so much of improv, this exercise is easier to show than it is to tell, so here’s how it went the first time I did it in Noah Gregoropoulos’ class:

After noticing that I was standing very straight, my class noted that I look with my eyes instead of with my whole head. Then they discussed what kind of character I made them think of:

“She seems like that person at the library or on the bus who keeps looking over at you, not because she’s interested in what you’re doing, but because your iPod is too loud or you’re tapping your fingers on your book. She probably won’t actually tell you to shut up, though, unless you really do something to push her over the edge.”

“Really? I thought of her more like that teacher that has a great connection with her students. She’s amazing in the classroom, and the kids love her and work hard for her. She doesn’t fit in with the teachers, though. If she has to spend time in the teachers’ lounge, she sits in the corner and reads.

“I thought she looked like that woman who is staring out the window and trying to be calm, but she knows that the gremlins are coming. They’ve come often enough that she really she shouldn’t be startled, so she’s trying to play it off like she’s not upset, like this is just another day with the gremlins.

That was four years ago. At the time, I was struggling with anxiety and depression, and I wonder how obvious that was. I’m curious to know if my neutral has changed since then. The best way to find out is probably to get into a room full of honest strangers and ask.

How to Play: Red Ball

This warm up game teaches how to give and receive well.

(It’s also where I got the name for this blog.)

How to Play:* Everyone gathers in a circle. One player (the giver) walks to another player (the receiver), makes eye contact, and holds out an invisible red ball.

The giver says, “Red ball.”

The receiver makes good eye contact and responds, “Thank you, red ball.”

The giver then takes the receiver’s place in the circle, and the receiver now becomes the giver. The new giver takes the same red ball, gives it to a new receiver, then takes his place.

A note for the giver: Interact with the ball, but don’t keep it for long, and don’t spend energy deliberating on who should receive it. Pick someone who looks like he needs a gift — trust your first impulse. When you give, be clear and specific. Make eye contact, and wait for acknowledgment from the receiver before you walk away.

A note for the receiver: Look the giver in the eye before you receive the gift. Thank her sincerely, then receive the gift with enthusiasm before you become the giver yourself. Make sure to say the full sentence, “Thank you, red ball!” This assures the giver that you’ve understood her. Be sure to receive the gift you were given, not the gift you thought you would get. That is, if you are handed a tennis ball, don’t receive it like a beach ball.

A note for the waiters: Stand with your hands open in front of your or relaxed by your sides. This shows that you are ready to receive whenever someone is ready to give. If your hands are in your pockets or balled into fists, don’t be surprised when you aren’t offered many gifts. 

 

“Red Ball” is at the core of what improv is about.

It’s the first game I teach to a new group of improvisors — whether they’re new to improv or just new to me. It sets a tone for the attitude I want to see throughout the rest of practice.  

It teaches you to treat everything as a gift, even if it wasn’t what you expected or wasn’t from the person you expected.

It teaches you to appreciate the giver as a person as well as the gift she has to offer.

It teaches you to hold your gifts loosely. They’re not yours to keep. They’re yours to give to whomever is open and ready to receive.
 
No gift is boring. It’s all in how you receive it.

I taught this game to a group of pastors and leaders at my church a couple of years ago, and they were quick to see obvious applications in Christian life:

We think of our abilities as gifts from God — make sure to acknowledge the Giver, not just the gift! — and that these gifts are given to us so that we may give to others in turn. How easy is it, though, to think of my gift as something scarce and rare, something I should protect and keep? But that’s burying a talent. We are made to give generously. (And if we’re attentive waiters, we won’t be empty-handed for long.)

And when we receive from one another, we are to do so with openness and thankfulness. I’d like to be totally self-sufficient, but I’m not. I don’t have everything I need, because I’m only one part of a larger body.  I need to be open to receiving gifts from other people, even if they’re not what I thought I wanted.

This fluid giving and receiving of gifts is what we’re called to in 1 Corinthians 12. The passage begins with listing the gifts, then establishing the metaphor of people as different parts of one body who must function as a whole.

It’s no coincidence that this is followed immediately by the famous “The Way of Love” passage. It doesn’t matter what wonderful gifts you have if your attitude isn’t one of love. In improv, we love one another by giving and receiving well.

*Tips for whoever is leading the game: Once the group has established a rhythm with the first red ball, add a yellow ball, a green ball, etc. If they seem to be doing well with the balls, add something large and unwieldy, like an anvil. Or something interactive, like a hyper puppy. Or something delicate, like a glass slipper. Having almost as many objects as you have people in the group — though not more! — keeps the energy high. Once the game has gone for a few minutes, start setting aside objects as you receive them. The action should decrescendo into stillness once you’ve received the last object.