Tag Archives: warm up

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?

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 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.