Tag Archives: Flash Fiction

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?

“Words, word, words. I’m so sick of words.”

In college, there was a deaf student who frequently came to our improv shows. He usually had a friend with him, translating our words into sign language. Our troupe had a goal that we wanted the show to be interesting and fun for the deaf student even if, by some chance, he didn’t have an interpreter that night.

I wrote in an email to my Flash Fiction partner, Brendon, “I’d love it if a deaf person watched our show and got the gist because of stage picture and body language, but things should definitely be harder for the blind.”*

An improviser I don’t know well asked me how I met one of my troupe mates. I said we’d taken a clown class together. Because he looked confused, I quickly explained that clown — at least, the kind I had been learning — was like improv, but without words. He said, “But that’s what improv is, is just words!”


Words are the quantifiable part. The seemingly-easy part. The least important part, if we’re doing it right. The part that can get us into the wrong kind of trouble if we’re lazy about them.

Most of the pitfalls Mick Napier lists in his book Improvise under “Common Problems” are about words. He’s got over seven pages about one version or another of talking too much (“Too Much Exposition” like in Blade’s sidewalk improv) and only one page about not talking enough.

I am aware the I’m starting to sound like Eliza Doolittle.

“Never do I ever want to hear another word … ”


*I just typed, “Things should definitely be harder for the blind.” Google is probably flagging me as a menace.

Plateau: a criminal oversimplification

This summer, I’ve been working with my friend Brendon on a two-person show* called Flash Fiction. We had our first show a couple of weeks ago after about 8 weeks of practice.

This is a mathematically precise chart** of our progress over the summer:

You know what communicates mathematical precision? Paintbrush.

A is our first two or three practices. We were figuring out what we wanted the show to be and getting our scene legs. While we have 18ish years of improv experience between us, neither of us had ever done a two-person show. The initial learning curve was huge. It took us a couple of practices to loosen up and articulate our goals.

B is the middle several practices. Let’s call it practice 4, 5, and 6. I realize that, on the chart, it is MUCH LONGER than A, even though it represents a similar period of time. This chart is not following calendar time. It’s following how the time felt. We plateaued for a few weeks, and that plateau felt like it lasted forever and ever amen. We weren’t bombing; we just weren’t getting better very quickly anymore. Everything we did was ok. Just ok.

C is our last three weeks of practice before the show. Every piece felt amazingly better than the piece that came before it. We played hard and smart. It was the kind of playing that reminds me why I do improv in the first place. I don’t know exactly how we pushed out of that plateau; good coaches and a Jet Eveleth workshop certainly helped.

D is our show. It was not our best work, but it was not our worst, either. It was on par with our plateau. This is consistent with several other troupes I’ve played with and coached. Even if you have experience, it takes a few performances for a troupe to really find its legs. A show introduces variables — a different space, an audience, logistics — that can throw you. I thought they wouldn’t throw me this time, but they did. The space was unexpectedly weird, the audience was larger than we’d anticipated, and the tech was rocky. It takes practice not to be distracted by those things.

We have another show in a few weeks, so I’m excited to see what E looks like.

This post was inspired by Bill Arnett’s classic post, Analysis and Synthesis, which I’ve found hugely encouraging. Please read it. Bill Arnett might say that what looks like a plateau is actually a very gentle upward slope, so subtle that it’s hard to notice while you’re on it.

That’s it. A criminal oversimplification of something that is born from our souls. I’ve ascribed numbers to art, the most sacred and challenging, the most human, of all of our endeavors. I’m just playing my part in the history of western civilization, I guess.

– Bill Arnett

*It takes a conscious effort for me to say this. I default to “two-man show,” even though I’m half the troupe and also a girl. 

**No it is not.