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Posts from the Warm-ups, Games & Exercises Category

One of the things that I do when I bring improv into the world of social work and/or academia is an exercise that I now call “The Drawing Exercise.” I learned it from the wonderful Jess Grant (in a group rehearsal with a bunch of very awesome people).

The exercise goes like this:

The premise is that the group works to create a picture together: line-by-line, person-by-person. Individuals take turns, but there’s no given order to the turn-taking. This is a silent exercise. The group is given one marker and a large sheet of paper on an easel (or on the wall). The instructions given are minimal.

  • draw ONLY one line or mark at a time
  • no talking
  • make your mark and then wait, facing the group, until someone takes the marker from you
  • the final drawing should appear drawn by one hand.
  • find your ending; when the group feels the picture is complete, you agree to this (non-verbally) and stop drawing

The group stands back about two meters from the paper, forming a semi-circle facing it. The facilitator makes a single mark on the paper, then stands by it with the marker in their hand until someone in the group (“A”) takes it from them. “A” proceeds to make another mark on the paper, and once again steps away from it with the marker in hand and stands until someone else continues the activity. The process continues until the group feels their picture is complete.

There are a ton of great things within this exercise, but for now I’m going to talk about making one mark at a time.

As an improvisational exercise, having to make one mark at a time is meant to induce the process of making room for the ideas of others. It’s intended to point to how it feels to do this kind of sharing, and to point to the experience of creating together and/or “having to” create together.

The technique of making one mark at a time also ensures that people take turns, and in doing this, give up some control, while making the concept of having control or personal power, visible.

Allowing for the ideas of others is an improvisational technique; not just allowing, but necessitating/obliging/enforcing. We’re forced to make room for the ideas of others, forced to “hear” those ideas because they are then “in the world/on the paper.”

We can’t ignore the reality that has been created because it is visible, concrete. In this way, it’s training for the improviser: to begin to say “yes” to, to work with, to engage with and accept, the marks of others.

The mark begs our consideration, as does our fellow players’ existence. Their words, their stories, their body language: these are all changing the space, shifting the flow of the air in the room, altering the shape of our body when we sit down or shake their hand or pull our gun (hahaha Michael Scott).

As an improviser, this is what we learn to do. We learn to actively consider the existence of others; their ideas, their postures, their words, their silences. We actively consider the existence of others and ourselves.

As we’re forced to consider the marks of others, it makes us reflect on how we feel about it, how we react to it. It helps us to hear the voices of others, to consider their marks, and to consider them in the context of what was drawn before and what will come after, as part of a whole process of creating together.

Sometimes this is exciting and sometimes this is shitty. But it’s usually an awakening. So I’m really thankful for improv and the way it does.

cathyblog

Cathy Paton is an Arts Facilitator who has worked in Canada and internationally with many groups, exploring movement, improv, and communication. Trained in long-form improvisation, modern dance, life/art performance method, and red-nosed clown, she is currently working on a PhD project that looks at how we can change our ways of relating through the art of improvisation. Cathy has a background in social work, and is always looking at ways of combining the arts with ways of being together.

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This game uses physicality to find a character, heighten and explore it. Our thanks to Todd Stashwick for teaching us.

To begin, players walk around the room in a neutral gait. As you walk, become aware of what part of your body you normally lead with. It may be your nose, forehead, chest, shoulders, hips, knees… Whatever it is, heighten it.

Stay in this exaggerated walk for a minute or so, then be the complement to that walk. For example, if you were walking with your shoulders slumped and stomach protruding, throw your shoulders back and suck your stomach in.

Walk in your new character for a while, then be the complement to that walk. After 30 seconds or so, become the complement to that walk.

Staying in this last physicality, stop and find something in your environment. Reach out and shape the space in front of you. Feel space push back as you work with the object.

What have you found?

Is it heavy or light, large or small, rounded or angular? Feeling the weight and shape of the object, think about your name, age and occupation.

Remember your physicality and newfound characteristics as everyone takes a seat. At the front of the room are two chairs, angled towards each other. The Coach/Director sits in one. He or she will play the Interviewer, whose task is to hire a super spy.

The qualified applicant must know twelve languages, be a mixed martial arts expert, have excellent sniper skills, be able to crack codes and hack into enemy computers, etc. etc. Think James Bond meets S.H.I.E.L.D. on steroids.

The Interviewer buzzes an off-stage assistant to bring in the next job applicant. He or she then interviews as many unqualified applicants as there are players.

Each person’s unsuitability for the job will be revealed as the Interviewer questions them about their experience (or lack of), physical (dis)abilities,  personality and other quirks or tics.

When the Interviewer can take no more, he buzzes in the next applicant.

As you can see from the photos, it’s more fun than a season of The Americans. Try it at your next rehearsal.

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All photos © Mark Cotoia

This is a great tool for getting people comfortable with each other (we mean really comfortable), and for connecting non-verbally.

Photo © Crista Flodquist

Photo © Crista Flodquist

To start, everyone stands and touches some part of someone else, using both hands. You don’t have to use your whole hand, it can be as little as the tip of one finger.

When the coach/director says go, everyone starts moving in any direction, as one entity. You can move wherever you want, but you must be in contact with other players at all times. If you find yourself losing the ability to use both hands, you can use a foot.

“Slow things down to make them more important, like the baby carriage scene from The Untouchables. When you slow it down and move or speak deliberately, it’s more fun than making fast, ambiguous motions.

Don’t left brain it. Don’t make pussy moves just to ‘go there’ already. Make everything, every movement or word, mean something.” – Susan Messing

If you find yourself phoning in movements, or hurrying from Point A to Point B, fully extend your body as you commit to the movement you’re already doing.

Caligula can get physically tiring very quickly, but it’s fascinating to watch the group meld and take on a life of its own. At some point you may find members being lifted, encircled, or even upside down. If that’s the case, take your time and lend physical support where it’s needed.

Photo © Crista Floquist

Photo © Crista Floquist

We all have emotional reactions to things.

Certain things just make us smile, or give us chills, or make us fly off the handle. It can be something as big as who won the election, or as small as our internet connection being slow.

Unfortunately, we often leave all that behind when we walk on stage. There’s tendency for improvisers to just stand around talking. But when you feel on stage, the audience will respond emotionally, too.

Oscar Moment is a great game for reminding us that anything can provoke an emotional reaction.

To begin, two people start a scene, with or without a suggestion.

The scene proceeds normally, then the Coach/Director (or an audience member) yells “Oscar Moment!”

That’s the cue for the last person who spoke to snap into high gear and heighten, emotionally. Think Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, The Last Detail, The Shining, or, well, just about anything.

Player A: I watered the plants.

Player B: Oh right, I forgot.

Audience Member: Oscar Moment!

Player B: I’m always forgetting. Stupid, stupid, stupid! It’s like someone took a vacuum to my head while I was sleeping, and sucked my brain right out of my earhole. I’m a big, fat, fucking, forgetful loser! I’ll always be a loser!

Or whatever.

The more banal the line that leads to the Oscar Moment, the funnier the results. Once the player has reached their emotional limit, the scene continues until the other person gets called on to emote.

You can choose which emotion you want to heighten in the moment. Mr Forgot-To-Water-The-Plants could have gotten angry, frightened, even lusty, for example.

Variation:

You could also play the game à la William Shatner - however you want to interpret that.

(Thanks to storyteller Sage Tyrtle for the link.)

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Sir John Hegarty is one of Britain’s leading creative minds. (How many ad men can you name who were knighted?)

In a recent interview, he talked about how creative teams inspire each other – but he could just as easily have been talking about Harold teams:

“Bill Bernbach, back in 1959 or ’60, whenever he did it, he put an art director and a writer together. He put two different kinds of brains together. That was so fundamentally important. It wasn’t just that they were two people; it was he put two different types of people together. And those people rub up against each other.

As I say to the teams here, ‘Look, don’t switch on the computer in the morning. Switch on that person sitting next to you. Because you will have a unique conversation. Nobody in the world is gonna have the conversation that you’re going to now have. And out of that conversation will come things.’

So inspiration will come from what you’ve done, what you’ve seen, what you’ve looked at, what you did over the weekend, what you saw last night. When you were walking home you saw this, that was funny, you did that, you saw that, you heard that person say this… All of those things become part of your vocabulary as a creative person.

And if you’re not doing that, if you’re not going to art galleries, you’re not reading books, you’re not reading magazines, you’re not going to the movies, you’re not picking up on all this stuff that’s out there…you’re depleting your creative assets. You’ve got to keep feeding them all the time.”

Talking with your teammates is a way to bond, and a quick pre-show chat will often add colour and specificity to your set when the things you talked about find their way into a scene.

So if a rousing game of Big Booty isn’t your idea of a fun warm-up, try turning off your iPhone and connecting with your teammates instead.

What do you do to stay creatively juiced?

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

I started to write about Pattern Game* and asked Cameron for his opinion. Of course, his answer was much more interesting than an explanation of how to do it.

And so, POV was born: Point Of View. People On Video. Party On…Valium?

Stay tuned for more POVs with your favourite improvisers. Click here or below to watch.

*For a detailed description of pattern games, see page 29 of Truth In Comedy.

CameronOnPatternGame

Silence is scary.

Silence between you and your partner.

Silence from the audience, punctuated by the dreaded cough.

This is when we usually resort to babbling. But if you can just breathe through it, nothing will give you more confidence than being comfortable with silence on stage.

Here are some exercises to bring out your inner Harpo.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Emotional Object Work

This exercise uses two performers.

One person does an activity they can repeat, e.g. folding laundry, or hammering wood.

The other person’s job is to say things to make that person react. But they can’t say anything; only show how they feel through how they do their activity.

For instance:

(Player 1 mimes chopping vegetables)

Player 2: I saw your ex, Linda, today.

(Player 1 starts chopping faster)

Player 2: She was across the street so I couldn’t talk to her.

(Player 1‘s chopping slows to normal)

Player 2: But then guess what? I ran into her again on the bus.

(Player 1 begins chopping furiously)

So now we know Player 1 has something going on with his ex.

Show how you feel through object work: try chopping a cucumber angrily, then happily, then jealously. And that’s just one activity. Imagine the possibilities with assembling an Ikea Malm dresser…

Variation

Every time Player 1 says something, Player 2 must find a new object in their environment and show how they feel through that object.

If they’re angry, perhaps they find a ball and squeeze it. If they’re happy, maybe they find a bubble wand and blow bubbles.

Third Wheel

This exercise is for, you guessed it, three players.

Two people ask for a relationship (married couple, best friends, co-workers, etc.), and begin a scene.

After they’ve established a conversation, the third person enters. He or she says nothing; the other two immediately stop talking. Everyone stays silent until the third person leaves again.

It might be parents talking about how they don’t have sex anymore, and a kid comes in to grab something from the fridge. Or maybe it’s co-workers planning to quit, and the boss comes in to pour a cup of coffee.

The third person should enter and exit at random, for anywhere from a minute to five seconds.

Catchphrase

The Coach/Director chooses two people, and asks for a catchphrase for each one. It can be anything from random sounds (“Sloopadeeoop!”) to a sentence that defines them (“Dudes gotta be dudes, dude”).

Each player can only say their catchphrase throughout the scene. Tone and body language will tell the story.

Clown Walk

This is a clown exercise we stole from Todd Stashwick. For this exercise, one person will be the clown, and one person will just be him or herself.

Both players begin by simply walking around the space. The person in front is just being themselves, walking their normal walk.

The clown walks behind them, mocking their partner’s walk, heightening and exaggerating it.

After a minute or so, the person in front suddenly turns and catches the clown in mid-mockery. They both stop in their tracks and make eye contact.

The clown reacts by being genuinely and sincerely sorry for what he or she has done.

Staying where they are, both players slowly turn and silently look at the audience. Don’t mug or play to the audience; just be as real as possible.

Repeat these actions twice more, with the clown’s mockery of his partner’s walk getting more and more absurdly heightened, followed by regret.

Then switch roles.

Upstage, Downstage

This exercise works on physicality, mime skills, and giving and taking focus. Oh, and audiences love it.

To begin, two people start a scene down stage. For simplicity, have the players stay seated throughout.

Once the scene has been established, two more people do a silent scene behind them, up stage.

The second scene should somehow relate to the first scene, but take place in a different environment.

For example, if the players upstage are roommates and they mention the neighbours downstairs, the other two can show us what those neighbours are like.

The players down stage should carry on with their scene, while the players up stage show us their world.

Unlike a split scene that takes place on opposite sides of the stage, both of these scenes should play out without pausing. There will still be give and take of focus however, since one pair is talking and the other is silent.

Viewpoints Exercise

Lastly, we asked improv guru David Razowsky for his thoughts on silent scenes. Here’s what he said:

All scenes have dialogue, even – and especially – scenes without “spoken” dialogue.

When you consider that scenes aren’t about what we say, rather they’re about how we say it, then the world opens up for you.

The first line of dialogue isn’t spoken – it’s noticed. I enter a scene and see you sitting, standing, moving, gesturing, and my first line is based on that; that’s how I cast you.

If we are truly in relationship to each other, then the words that come out of our mouths don’t matter. Any Viewpoints* exercise will highlight that.

I enter a scene and stop. You move somewhere on the stage in relationship to where I stopped. I move somewhere on stage in relationship to that.

We’re in the middle of a scene as long as we’re aware of each other’s “Spatial Relationship.” Our “dialogue” is not spoken text, rather it’s our movement toward and away from each other.

A major part of this exercise is to realize that your ego is going to want you to speak, that you can’t possibly be “interesting” because you’re not using dialogue.

That’s creating from lack and in communion with your ego, never a union that creates, always a union that keeps us in stasis.

This exercise requires you to not do anything to make anything happen: no unnecessary grunts or gestures or movements that aren’t based on responding to your partner.

You have everything you need – trust it.

A scene with no dialogue is the greatest expression of trust two or more actors can engage in.

* Viewpoints is an acting method that utilizes nine tenets:

• Architecture (Everything in your environment: light, shadow, sound, objects, the stage.)

• Spatial Relationship (The relationship you have with a person or your Architecture. You are in a spatial relationship with everything.)

• Shape (When you change your shape on stage, you change the scene and your emotion.)

• Gesture (Can be Expressive, such as a “Talk to the hand” gesture, or Behavioural, such as yawning or a nervous tic.)

• Tempo (The pace at which we do things; the speed or slowness with which we breathe, move, talk, stand.)

• Duration (The length of time we hold a shape, a tempo, a gesture, repetition.)

• Topography (Where you move on stage.)

• Repetitition (Of speech or movement.)

• Kinesthetic Response (A reaction, e.g. I drop something, you look. A door opens, you turn. I come towards you, you back off.)

To learn more about it, click here.

 

“Everybody’s talkin’ at me, I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’” – Nilsson

If the thought of doing a silent scene fills you with nightmare visions of Marcel Marceau, relax. You don’t need to chew the scenery, and not everyone has to be mute.

Even one silent character can steal the show.

Second City actor Jason DeRosse played a baby in a five-person scene. The other performers were hilarious, but the audience was riveted on Jason. He didn’t make a sound; just lay on his back looking wide-eyed and innocent, occasionally grasping a mobile overhead.

When I asked him about it afterwards, he told me “Strength in silence!”

If you want to strengthen your non-verbal muscles, the following exercises can help.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

 

Music is a powerful emotional cue. Some of the most memorable scenes in movie history use music in place of dialogue:

• The shower scene in Psycho

The opening montage from Up    

The iconic slow-mo walk from Reservoir Dogs  

Rob Norman and Becky Johnson did a silent scene with music at Comedy Bar. The audience shouted out “colonscopy” and “Titanic.”

Mark Andrada cued the title song, and Rob and Becky played out a love story between doctor and patient that could only happen in improv.

Now it’s your turn…

Emotional Soundtrack

For this exercise, select two performers.

The Coach/Director plays a piece of music. It can be anything from Carly Rae Jepson to Jay-Z, from jazz to blues to hillbilly music.

The music sets the mood for the scene, which the players perform without words.

They can be sitting, standing, miming an action; it doesn’t matter, as long as there’s eye contact and a connection between the characters. Let the musical changes inform the action and reactions.

Try it with different kinds of music, with or without chairs.

You can also try adding sound effects.

Watch how sound effects heighten the tension (and hilarity) in this scene from Boogie Nights. (Yes, there is dialogue, but the tension is in the spaces between the words and sounds.)

Inside Voices

This is similar to the Gibberish Translation exercise, except the people on stage are silent.

To begin, choose four people. Two will be in the scene, and two will be Narrators. The Narrators stand on either side of the stage or rehearsal space. The other two ask for a location, then start the scene without speaking.

They can be sitting, standing, miming an action; it doesn’t really matter. The only rule is, no talking.

Allow the performers to settle in for 20 to 30 seconds, giving them time to get comfortable with their character and make eye contact with their scene partner.

One Narrator then voices a thought inside the head of the character closest to him.

The second Narrator then voices the other character’s thoughts.

Since all the dialogue is internal, the characters can’t hear what each other is thinking. For example:

Narrator 1: Look at Brad, sitting there all smug. What a d-bag.

Narrator 2: Cathy sure is pretty. I wonder if she likes me?

So we’ve established that Player 1, voiced by Narrator 1, is repulsed by Player 2. Meanwhile Player 2, voiced by Narrator 2, has a crush on Player 1.

From here, both the Players and Narrators can have fun ratcheting up the tension between them, since all of the thoughts – however outrageous they might become – are in the characters’ heads, while their outward appearance might suggest something else.

1 to 50

This exercise demonstrates the importance of tone and body language, and the unimportance of words when we communicate.

Two people start a scene, with or without a suggestion. Instead of words, they can only say numbers. The players take turns until they reach 50. For instance:

Player 1: One.

Player 2: Two.

Player 1: (quizzical) Three, four?

Player 2: (excited) Five-six-seven!

Notice how quickly we become emotional when we don’t have words to hide behind. In order to communicate your point of view, tone and physicality become much more important.

Good Morning Fucko

This exercise is great fun to watch and play. The Coach/Director may side coach, in order to keep players focused on responding to each other, while maintaining their own point of view.

To begin, place two chairs close to each other, facing the audience. This will be the bed.

Two players lie back in the chairs with their eyes closed. They silently choose a deal, or point of view, for themselves as they “sleep.”

After 10 or 15 seconds, the Coach/Director says, “Good morning, Fucko.”

Both people wake up, in character.

The scene plays out silently, as the performers discover where they are, and who these characters are to each other.

Are they married? Roommates? Was it a one-night stand?

Remind players to check in with each other as they go about their day.

Don’t race through activities. If your character makes the bed, don’t just flip the covers and walk away – unless that’s how that character makes a bed.

If you step in the shower, turn on the taps. Then grab the soap. Does it have a hair in it? Ewww. Find the shampoo, and so on.

Or maybe you skip the shower and find yourselves sitting across the table having cereal.

What is the vibe between you? That’s the scene.

(Thanks to Todd Stashwick, Adam Cawley, Rob Norman, Jason DeRosse, Susan Messing, Tom Vest, Cameron Algie, Greg Hess, and David Razowsky for their help with this post.

Stay tuned for more exercises in Part Two.)

This short-form game is great for getting out of your head because the constant movement means you don’t have time to plan. It’s also a fun reminder of how body language informs character and dialogue, and the importance of play (something we sometimes forget).

All you need are three players and a chair. As the name suggests, one player must always be sitting, one standing, and one bending over.

Get a suggestion (say, a location that fits on the stage, or a relationship for the three players), then start your scene.

There’ll be a little scrambling as each of you chooses a stance and either sticks with it or changes if someone else already has the same one.

As the scene unfolds you’ll find yourself changing posture either naturally, or on purpose just to mess with your teammates. Half the fun is forcing your scene partners to justify their new posture, or being forced to change and somehow justify yours.

Click here or below to watch improv maestros Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie and Wayne Brady show us how it’s done.

This is a short-form classic.

You probably remember it from Whose Line Is It Anyway? Ryan Stiles was usually a hapless chef, forced to mix and eventually eat disgusting concoctions, prepared with the help of Colin Mochrie.

Even without props, this exercise is a great reminder of the power of body language.

To begin, choose four players. Two people stand with their arms clasped behind their backs. The other two thread their arms through the “holes” on either side. The players in front do all the talking, while their “helping hands” do all the gesturing.

The contrast between what the audience sees (someone scratching their nose, stroking their chin, or twiddling their thumbs for example) and what’s being said is half the fun.

Here’s a great example (sans words) using dogs. Click below to view.

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