1.4 – To The Ether Games

TO THE ETHER Games

I like Frisbee.
I like hacky sack.
I like hitting this one stick I wrapped in ribbons with these other two sticks I wrapped in different ribbons.
I like the Grateful Dead.
I like acoustic guitar around a beach bonfire.
I like blowing into this diggerydoo I crafted in the company of native Aborigines during the Australian leg of my Peace Corp stint.
I like tie dye.
I like white-girl dreadlocks.
I like the hemp clothing, ropes and cleansing products I handmake and sell in open air markets and on commune tours with all profits going to Amnesty United.
Man, I just like being stoned.

In a To The Ether game, the progression of personal games establishes the pattern, and the scenic game is heightened in that pattern’s evolving repetition.

For focus sake, the pattern is emphasized over any need to contextualize or justify where the players are or who they are to one another. Players can literally deliver their lines into empty spaces without expectation of a conversational response. Thus, “To The Ether” games.

While to explain the progression of the To The Ether game mechanic I will lean on text, the To The Ether game is not a purely verbal exercise. Characters help. Emotion’s a must. A game that progresses from, “Ooh, my stomach,” to “Oooooh, my stoooomach,” to “Oooooooooooh, my stooooooooooomach” with each player heightening their character’s physical and emotional agony is most certainly of the To The Ether ilk. Furthermore, players should interact with and inhabit physical space; it’s just that this style of game does free players from having to exist in the same physical space.

While seemingly the most elementary of the three rubrics, To The Ether scenes are most illustrative of pattern variations due to its comparative propensity toward mutation. Practice with To The Ether games will enable your group to seamlessly flex with the pattern’s progression.

How do we play?

Like all our games it’s best facilitated with a self-contained emotional statement and built through Offer, Set and Cement moves that establish the rules of its pattern and enable it to be repeated and heightened.

In the opening example, the game is built like a One Person Scene.

Offer – I like Frisbee.

Remember, the Offer is anything. A self-contained emotional statement, though, is certainly conducive to To The Ether, as being self-contained the opening line does not dictate a dialogue.

Witnessing Player One’s Offer move, Player Two, in attempting the Set move, need only to make their contribution related to the Offer move.

In facilitating the option for a One Person Scene, Player Two need only agree with the Offer – “I like Frisbee” would suffice. Remember: It’s that easy. What’s important is that Player Two – whoever he or she is – gets out there and supports Player One. And the quickest route to support is agreement.

There is, in fact, danger in straying too far from the Offer. To facilitate group participation, we want this group game to have a direction to build in quickly. Set the direction with clarity.

Just change one thing. And heighten everything you don’t change.

Heighten Player One’s delivery while substituting a different noun. Change character and express an identical sentiment. You can never go wrong choosing to heighten the established emotion.

From the Offer stem infinite possible moves. Player Two’s job is to get out there and choose one.

Offer – I like Frisbee.
Set – I like Kleenex.

Now what?

Player Three’s job, in attempting the Cement move, is first to make a decision about how the Set move is related to the Offer move. The Cement move seeks to heighten the relationship between the Set and Offer moves through its own relationship with the Set move, clarifying the direction of the pattern so that it can be repeated and heightened.

If A, then B, then what? “C” – for Cement – should attempt to relate to B as B relates to A.

Offer – I like Frisbee.
Set – I like Kleenex.

What the Set move keeps the same from the Offer move, the Cement move should also keep.
Player Three should now feel obligated to stick the “I like” phrasing for the sake of the tight pattern, in addition to heightening the actual “like.”

And what changes from the Offer move to the Set move should change again in the same direction.

Frisbee and Kleenex are both brand names that get bandied about in reference to the generics. So Player Three’s Cement move is “I like Coke.” That’s a pretty straight line from Offer through Set to Cement. Player Four has no excuse not to get out there. “I like Xerox.” “I like Jello.” “I like Band-Aid.”

Player Three has cemented a run of Categories. “I like [brand name that gets bandied about in reference to the generic brands].” The beauty of a Categories run is that everyone can come out and support. The game is clear and all can play along. When everyone’s committed to playing we’ll crescendo collaboratively, as opposed to when we’re in our heads, working hard and begging for the close of business bell. Trust the pattern – it will always find you an exit faster than if you abandon it.

Run out of options with which to fill in the blank? Call out what it is you’re doing – “I love genericide.”

If the run is laid clear, it may be appropriate to throw the game on its head. “I like RC Cola,” coupled with resultant disgusted reactions from all prior players would provide a good exit, BUT ONLY if the run has been played out. Throwing a pattern on it head too early is a dangerous game. If you don’t find your edit, you have to reinvest pretty heavily.

A Categories run of a To The Ether game is a fine thing. It’s clear and everyone can play, and that buys us time to find an exit line.

The relationship between the respective “Frisbee,” “Kleenex,” and “Coke,” Offer, Set, and Cement moves defines the Categories run,…

But…

It is a Categories run because the relationship between the moves is not dependent on a progression.

Example One – Frisbee, Kleenex, Coke
Example Two – Kleenex, Frisbee, Coke
Example Three – Coke, Frisbee, Kleenex

The order of the contributions isn’t definitively important. As a result, the contributions don’t necessarily build in a cohesive direction.

So while – as explained – a Categories run is certainly manageable, the Cement move makes a pattern most conducive to subsequent heightening if it seeks to establish a progression. The Cement move seeks to heighten the relationship between the Set and the Offer move.

Even in the categorical format of “I like Frisbee,” “I like Kleenex,” and “I like Coke,” if subsequent players heighten “I like” with intensified emotion, “I like Playboy” could call the edit to a scene with the (im)proper physicalization of desire. Player Three could also seek to cement a progression by delivering her “I like Coke” line in a clear robotic voice; subsequent exaggeration of a robot’s delivery presents a collective direction for heightening.

The clearer the pattern’s progression the more conducive the pattern will be to heightening.

WALK BACKWARD WITH ME…

Offer – I like Frisbee.
Set – I like varsity sports.

Player Three is paying attention. To him, Frisbee is a frivolous game young people play. In relation, Varsity sports infer a comparatively more serious activity played by comparatively older participants. So…

Cement – I like corporate golf outings.

With the Cement move, the progression is clear to Player Four who adds, “I like family board game night.” Player Five heightens with, “I like senior night at the bingo hall.” And Player Six leverages the progression saying, “I like when we angels play paintball.”

The pattern’s progression leads the group to a collaborative culmination.

WALK BACKWARD WITH ME DOWN A NEW ROAD…

Offer – I like Frisbee.
Set – I like batting a ball of yarn around.

How might you cement this pattern? How do you see the Set move relating to the Offer move?

Together, the Offer and Set moves infer “things that pets do.” So a Cement move could be, “I like playing fetch.” It could be. But remember when attempting the Cement move to focus on servicing a progression.

Frisbee is an activity for dogs. Batting a ball of yarn around is an activity for cats. What is the relationship from dogs to cats and how can that progression be clarified in a Cement move?

Cement – I like running in a wheel.

From dog to cat to hamster, the track follows progressively smaller animals.

I like Frisbee.
I like batting a ball of yarn around.
I like running in a wheel.
I like perching on a pointer finger.
I like swimming through plastic castles.
I like performing in table-top circuses.
I like avoiding nit combs.
I like swimming across eyeballs.
and…
(in either the progressively heightened tiny voice or in a new monstrous voice)
I like living in your mouth.

But what if – no matter how clarifying the progression of pattern moves is – a Player Four does not come out on stage and support it?

WALK BACKWARD WITH ME AROUND THIS CONIC SPIRAL…

With their Offer, Set and Cement moves, Players One, Two and Three have established a pattern and defined their individual places in it. If no one else comes out to support them, they need only re-Set the pattern they’ve created and heighten the pattern through repetition themselves.

Player One – I like Frisbee.
Player Two – I like batting a ball of yarn around.
Player Three – I like running in a wheel.

We have a dog, a cat and a hamster but no bird courtesy of Player Four. We need to reset the pattern.

The pattern started with Player One; Player One’s job is to reset the pattern when necessary. Recognizing when it’s necessary to reset a pattern is a matter of patience, timing and practice. When there’s no sound of supportive feet running in from the wings, it becomes necessary to reset the pattern.

And when it’s necessary, the act of resetting a pattern is more important than the content. We’re defining a second pattern pass, which begins with an Offer, and the Offer is anything. When met with the question of whether to speak again or speak again “correctly” it is most important that Player One choose to speak again, signaling to Players Two and Three that the pattern is being repeated.

That said, for focus sake, Player One serves the pattern at play to this point in the To The Ether game by employing this second contribution in heightening his Personal Game. In this way, Player One’s second offer to the scenic game sets the direction of each subsequent player’s personal game.

What is Player One personally about? He’s about Frisbees. All he has to do is reengage the pattern with a line heightening his preference for Frisbees. “Nothing flies like a Frisbee.”

This signals to Player Two to heighten her preference for her personal game in a similar fashion. “Nothing bats like a ball of yarn,” is good enough.

Now Player Three takes his role in the pattern, heightening his personal game in a similar fashion. “Nothing runs like a wheel.” Easy.

With a second pass complete, the pattern is set.

Back to Player One. He needs to re-restart the pattern. Now he’s had some time to think, and what he should of been thinking about is how he can using heightening his own personal game to best set up Player Three to heighten his personal game. How about…

I’ve tried other flying discs but they didn’t grab me.
I’ve batted other things, but I couldn’t get caught up in them.
I’ve tried running outside the wheel but it never got me anywhere.

In a To The Ether game, the progression of personal games establishes the pattern, and the scenic game is heightened in that pattern’s evolving repetition.
If the pattern hits a wall progressing in one direction it can be restarted and heightened in layers. In repeating the pattern, the repeating players heighten their personal games through the pattern that unites them scenically.

For another example, let’s revisit the example that introduced the To The Ether game, this time with the players’ roles defined –

Player One – I like Frisbee.
Player Two – I like hacky sack.
Player Three – I like hitting this one stick I wrapped in ribbons with these other two sticks I wrapped in different ribbons.
Player One – I like the Grateful Dead.
Player Two – I like acoustic guitar around a beach bonfire.
Player Three – I like blowing into this diggerydoo I crafted in the company of native Aborigines during the Australian leg of my Peace Corp stint.
Player One – I like tie dye.
Player Two – I like white-girl dreadlocks.
Player Three – I like the hemp clothing, ropes and cleansing products I handmake and sell in open air markets and on commune tours with all profits going to Amnesty United.

With Player Three’s first contribution it’s abundantly clear that the scenic pattern of personal games is heightening “things hippies like.” But maybe a Player Four is kept from supporting the scene by Player Three’s verboseness. Hopefully Player One recognizes without too much dead air that the pattern has hit a wall and needs to be reset.

Each subsequent player’s contribution heightens the scenic game of “things hippies like.” But each player’s contribution is also pushed through the filter of their personal games.

Player One participates in the pattern through a filter of hippy-endorsed branding.

Player Two focuses on specific hippy attributes that make hippies look like douchebags.

Player Three heightens through the increasingly verbose rants of a pompous hippy.

These improvisers can play these games forever. But they won’t need to. An edit will probably come naturally as the audience’s lizard brains react to the third move of the third pattern pass of the game. Or Player Four realizes that the hippies on stage are too energetic and that that fact runs contrary to our concept of hippies who, man, just like being stoned.

But, man, once a pattern is cemented, it can go on forever. Trust the pattern – it will always find you an exit faster than if you abandon it.

In this clip, The Johnsons of The Coalition Theater in Richmond, VA use a To The Ether game as their Opening.  Notice that the progression of the language pattern is not consistent, but the progression of esoteric technologies through heightened engagement into mime is pretty consistent and that pattern earns them a strong laugh.

Continuing our To The Ether lesson, this game mechanic has another common mutation to learn from.

WALK BACKWARD WITH ME BETWEEN POLES…

Offer – I like Frisbee.
Set – I like work.

Okay. What do we got here?

What’s the progression from “Frisbee” to “work” with a mind’s eye toward what lies on the far side of the resultant line?

Frisbee is to work as work is to…?

If Player Three is paralyzed on the wings, Player One could of course choose to reinvest in the established pattern through heightening his personal game.

Player One – I like Frisbee.
Player Two – I like work.
Player One – I toss it out with a flick of the wrist and I catch it gracefully.
Player Two – In one movement, I drop it in my Outbox and pick it up from my Inbox.
Player One (mimes missing a catch, following it with his eyes) – Little help?
Player Two (mimes pulling a memo out of the Inbox and, clearly confused by its content, scans the office) – Little help?

Buuuuuut, Player One is now great at restarting. Let’s put it on Player Three.

A Player Three could attempt a Categories run, but “things you do” is a pretty broad category which might prove hard to facilitate through a tight pattern. “Frisbee” and “work” are more opposing than they are aligned and so it’s difficult to determine a third object/activity that is like the originating moves.

A Player Three could settle into the gap between the opposing moves. And in this particular example, that might work.

Player One – I like Frisbee.
Player Two – I like work.
Player Three – I work for the weekends.
Player One – I want to have fun.
Player Two – I want to be productive.
Player Three – I’m productive during the week so my time is free for fun.
Player One – I’m going to blow up your banks.
Player Two – I’m going to cancel your Welfare check.
Player Three – I’m going to vote for Obama. No, I’m going to vote for Romney. No, I’m going to take the kids to Disney World.

BUT most times settling into the gap between the opposing moves can be dangerous…because it can be boring.

I’m hot.
I’m cold.
I’m lukewarm.

If you’re Harry Shearer and you’re in a movie you can edit before it reaches an audience, you can assume the role of lukewarm water. More often than not, playing the middle between two poles ensures that you’re the least fun person on stage. We want to lead by following, not by negotiating.

So how do we handle poles?

Remember this?

OFFER: Orange + Peel
SET: Melon + Rind
CEMENT: Apple + Skin

Remember that our pattern rules are defined in retrospect. If Player Two’s move does not sufficiently set the pattern, then Player Three can make it part of the Offer move.

Met with two poles, Player Three seeks to set another two poles by focusing on heightening Player One’s Offer.

Player One – I like Frisbee.
Player Two – I like work.
Player Three – I like video games.

Player Three has heightened Player One’s personal game – “recreational activity” – and she did it in the context of the initial relationship – “frivolous activity.” She is signaling to Player Four to decide the answer to “as Frisbee is to work so are video games to…”

Player One – I like Frisbee.
Player Two – I like work.
Player Three – I like video games.
Player Four – I like balancing the books.

So if Player One’s contribution plus Player Two’s contribution constitutes the Offer move, and Player Three’s contribution together with Player Four’s contribution defines the Set move, then…

Player One – I like Frisbee.
Player Two – I like work.
Player Three – I like video games.
Player Four – I like balancing the books.
Player Five – I like presiding as Dungeon Master over my role-playing cronies.
Player Six – I like being Chairman of the Board.

Talk about a game that could go on forever.

Player Seven – I like playing with Monopoly money.
Player Eight – I like leveraged buyouts.

When a Player Three hears “poles,” her Pavlovian improvisational instinct should be to recreate those poles’ patten in a heightened context.

Player One – I’m hot.
Player Two – I’m cold.
Player Three – I’m suffocating.
Player Four – I want to snuggle.
Player Five – I want a divorce.
Player Six – I want to be dead in your coffin.

And what if these Offer, Set and Cement pairings do not evoke a scene edit or the joining of another supportive pair?

Then Player One has to restart. Luckily he’s practiced enough that he’s playing on instinct.

Player One – I’m hot.
Player Two – I’m cold.
Player Three – I’m black.
Player Four – I’m white.
Player Five – I’m young.
Player Six – I’m old.
Player One – Stop it with the thermostat; I’m burning up.
Player Two – You stop it with the thermostat; I’m freezing.
Player Three – Stop it with the racial oppression; I’m burning up.
Player Four – You stop it with the reparations; I’m freezing up.
Player Five – Stop it with your conservatism; I’m burning up.
Player Six – You stop it with your liberalism; I’m freezing up.
Player One – Wear a sweater!
Player Two – Take off a layer!
Player Three – Have a heart!
Player Four – Lift yourself up!
Player Five – Die already!
Player Six – Over my dead body!

Obviously in this To The Ether game, character and emotion are important components. Attention to stage picture, too, would heighten the scenic game in this example – staggered groups of two would serve to emphasize the poles more than a line of six players could.

Here’s a video example of a To The Ether around poles done in a workshop.  The juxtaposed emotions are our poles and emotional intensity defines the progression.

The ability to navigate poles is just one of the skills cultivated through repeated practice of To The Ether games with the end goal of enabling rote memory to serve us as improvisational actors collaboratively building something out of nothing before a live audience.  While a seemingly simple mechanic, the resulting progressions can take many forms.

IAIDB GAMES IN DOTS TtE 2The ability to navigate poles in a To The Ether scene is a solid prerequisite for an improviser’s mastery of the second rubric Group Game scene…

NEXT: Help Desk Games

17 thoughts on “1.4 – To The Ether Games

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