Objective: To establish and heighten organic group games collaboratively as an ensemble.
When I was in Chicago, we mostly learned how to do group games through seeing them on stage whenever we wanted. When I moved to DC, I developed To The Ether, Help Desk and Hey Everybody Group Games to help me explain the mechanics that enable an improviser to collaborate with others to establish and heighten patterns as a group. While I love the fact that these rubric group games are performed on stage, by design they rigidly focus on specific cellular structures that can be used to build organic forms.
This workshop does not focus on one particular structure but rather on how any structure can be built organically through the progression of moves.
I love organic group games.
I love watching a series of players building off each other, creating something together that not one of them could have imagined alone. And the audience loves watching this too, seeing the spontaneous creation of something out of nothing before their very eyes. Everyone’s in on the joke. And the results are magic.
PATTERNS AND GAMES
- Pattern – a sequence/structure that is repeated/reused
- Game – a sequence of actions, defined by rules of cause-and-effect, that heightens with repetition
We use Patterns to establish and heighten Games. We build Patterns out of connected Games. Patterns on Patterns on Patterns. Games on Games on Games.
The nuances between the definitions is less important than how we use them both: Patterns and Games help a group of improvisers know what’s next. A pattern’s “this follows this follows this” structure enables an improviser to contribute confidently; if a boy enters stage, then a girl, then a boy, then a girl, everyone knows the next person that enters should be a boy. A game’s “X causes Y resulting in Z” structure enables an improviser to play Pavlovian-ly; if a player’s temper causes another player to cry resulting in the first player calming his outburst, then everyone knows tempers have the power to make people cry and crying has the power to stop tempers.
Patterns and Games help establish expectations for the audience. The first time something happens is random, the second time is purposeful and the third time is expected. In our character work, establishing patterns of behavior makes the audience know and invest in who we create. You can make new shit up, but effective drama happens when two people are at odds with each other for reasons that arise out of established personalities. We have to establish expectations before we can subvert them; if your character just keeps changing willy-nilly the audience will give up on trying to follow you.
So Patterns and Games help improvisers build collaboratively and help engage the audience. How do we establish and build these Patterns and Games?
BUILDING PATTERN PROGRESSIONS
“Apple,” “Laser,” “Cedar,” is a sequence that, when repeated, can be made a pattern. You could feasibly create a wallpaper that had these three things repeated up and down and around a room. So we can make anything a pattern by repeating it. But an initial pattern that grows with a discernible progression will make it possible for players to collaborate confidently.
For example, if the nodes of the sequence are “Baby,” “Teenager,” and “Adult”, no one will have any problem making the next contribution.
Three moves define the pattern progression –
- 1st move = Offer (anything is an offer)
- 2nd move = Sets the pattern (of the myriad directions available after the Offer the Set move begins to define a single trajectory)
- 3rd move = Cements the pattern (clarifies the pattern in a direction that can be repeated and heightened)
The Offer is anything. The Set move seeks to establish a relationship with 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. The progression of Offer, Set and Cement moves define the rules to the relationship between nodes in the sequence.
So now thanks to the Cement move we know we’re not just contributing Colors but Darkening Colors. We’re not just adding on Fruits but Sequentially Smaller Citrus Fruits. Not just Homophones but Color-Centric Homophones.
When the progression’s path is clear, everyone can come out and play…
“Orange,” “Red,” “Violet,” “Purple,” “Grey,” “Black”
“Shirt,” “Chest hair,” “Pectorals,” “Rib cage,” “Heart,” “Aorta,” “Blood,” “Cell”
“House,” “Neighborhood,” “County,” “State,” “Country,” “Continent,” “Planet,” “Galaxy”…
We make each next move on the basis of everything that came before it. Defined in retrospect, each “move” needn’t be “one line” or “one player’s contribution.”
For example, Player One says, “Orange,” and Player Two says, “Peel.” When Player Three says, “Melon,” he is signaling to his troupe that – in retrospect – “Orange” and “Peel” together constitute the Offer move. And this should lead Player Four to say, “Rind.” So…
OFFER Orange + Peel
SET Melon + Rind
CEMENT Apple + Skin
The clearer a pattern is, the easier it will be for a group to heighten it through repetition. “Orange,” “Peel,” “Melon,” “Rind,” “Apple,” “Skin,” “Turtle,” “Shell,” “Orangutan,” “Fur,” “Melon,” “Skull,” “Bod,” “Duds,” “Ride,” “Rims,” “Crib,” “Bling,”…
To drill students on building pattern progressions I run Word Associations around a circle. Additional insight into Word Association variations can be found in this post focused on Game Mechanics. What’s important is that every player commit to building based on the progression they see connecting the moves already made.
Word Associations: Players stand in a circle. One player is asked to say “any word,” this is the Offer. The next player says another word related to the Offer, this is the Set move. The next player, making whatever connection they see between the Offer and the Set moves, says another word that seeks to establish the trajectory of the pattern’s progression. Start slow, with each player thinking aloud through the connections they’re making. Then allow for uninterrupted attempts that are dissected on the backend, by you and by the group. Committed concentration on the mechanics of building a pattern progression now will enable players to trust their pattern recognition skills in-the-moment later.
• A to B connections are great. A to C connections may be clever, but the clearer we make the connection between moves the faster everyone can get on the same page and the sooner the pattern can evolve collaboratively.
• Resetting the sequence is always an option. If you’re ever lost, go back to what you did before, building layers of patterns, heightening with each subsequent sequence.
• There are no mistakes in patterns on stage. There is no “right.” There is only “what has happened” and “what’s happening now.” We work to make our partners look good. We accept everything that happens and work to integrate it. The group fails when we fail to integrate each individual contribution into the whole. Everything that happens becomes part of the pattern. “A” then “B” then “Y” is not a mistake. The next part of the pattern is “C” then “D” then “Z.”
ESTABLISHING RULES TO THE GAMES
“Rules” in this context aren’t unbreakable constraints defining engagement. Here, “Rules” are relationships of cause and effect that, once established, can help improvisers react through instead of think through scenes. In a Word Association for example, if a “use” always follows an object – for example, “Pen,” “Write” – then it’ll be easier to know what to say when some says, “Brush.”
When a group builds organically together, each individual is by necessity playing by their own rules. But if each individual is striving to establish rules based on what’s already been introduced and to clarify rules through repetition, then the individuals begin working as a group.
Simplification and Clarification help many players heighten collaboratively. We Simplify through Agreement. We Clarify through Repetition.
Depending on the number of people in a workshop, I will teach establishing rules through Kick the Duck, Red Rover or through a circle game like Dukes of Hazard. In either case, what’s important is for improvisers to become thoughtful about connecting moves through relationships of cause and effect.
Dukes of Hazard: Players stand in a circle and are given three Rules. Rule #1: To pass the focus to the left or right around the circle, a player waves his arms in the direction of an adjacent player and says, “Woosh.” Rule #2: To reverse the direction of the focus’ motion, a player receiving a “Woosh” can cross her arms and say, “Rrrrrt” (brake noise). Rule #3: To pass the focus to anyone other than an adjacent player, a player arches an arm and points at another player while saying the Dukes of Hazard theme music, “Do-do-doodle-do-do-do-doot-doodle.”
Have players just start playing with the three rules. Then stop them and ask something like, “When do you pass the focus across the circle?” They won’t have been playing by any rules. They will have employed moves “When we felt like it.” Have them start again fresh, this time focused on establishing rules of cause and effect that determine when to use moves. The first time a move is used it might be random, but if players are paying attention to what happened before and after that random occurrence then they can seek to recreate that sequence and make the random purposeful, then expected. As players seek to recreate sequences it will certainly evolve as individually conceived rules are clarified, and the whole set of sequences heightens through attempts at repetition.
“Woosh,” “Woosh,” “Woosh,” “Rrrrrt,” “Woosh,” “Woosh,” “Woosh,” “Rrrrrt,” “Woosh,” “Woosh,” “Rrrrrt,” “Woosh,” “Woosh,” “Rrrrrt,” “Woosh,” “Rrrrrt,” “Woosh,” “Rrrrrt,” “Do-do-doodle-do-do-do-doot-doodle.”
It doesn’t have to be played that tight. And it won’t possibly be the first few times through. But if everyone’s concentrated on working to establish and clarify rules, then it’s possible for the group to be playing by similar (if not the same) rules and then suddenly the game is fun for all involved.
• Playing is following. As kids we made up silly games in-the-moment. We did that because we followed our friends impulses and our friends followed ours. We just focused outward on fun and weren’t in our heads judging. Your pre-puberty, non-judgmental selves are still accessible. Follow the fun to find him or her. Play with a “Me, too” mentality not a “Nuh, uh” mindset.
• Fold it all in. Just because you thought the game was to pass across the circle three times doesn’t mean you can give up trying to play along with the group the moment something didn’t work out as you expected. Remember, there are no mistakes. If everyone is committed to clarifying, then we will get on the same page.
• Trust the pattern – don’t overcomplicate. The sooner everyone is on the same page, the sooner we can heighten and evolve collaboratively. Playing this game, a group starts to have fun with very simple mechanics simply because they know how to play and can just play. We tend to overcomplicate unnecessarily. And then we end up in our heads trying to figure out how to navigate all our complications. Keep it simple and have fun with it.
FOLLOWING PROGRESSIONS AND RULES TO STAGE-READY ORGANIC GROUP GAMES
Ultimately, to get students practice establishing and heightening Organic Group Games, we’ll do a run of scenes built through the following steps:
1. Initiate with a Self-Contained Emotional Statement as the Offer
- The Self-Contained Emotional Statement establishes an effect and a cause, aligning you with an emotional perspective. It’s a solid foundation on which to build the possibilities. Connecting your emotion to an active element in the scene – Not just “I love the arts,” but, “I love THIS painting” – enables a Pavlovian reaction.
- It’s a statement, not a question shifting the responsibility of providing information to your partner.
- It’s an emotional statement, giving X the power to make you feel Y.
- Being self-contained, the statement places you on solid ground without dictating the scene to your partners. Being self-contained is increasingly an imperative the larger a group you have on stage.
2. Seek to Set the progression with one of four ways to join the scene
- Heighten with Agreement – “I love the stars.” “They’re so bright, sparkly and perfect.” Agreement allows multiple players to collaboratively heighten one emotional perspective.
- Heighten Tangentially – “I love the stars.” “I’m more a planets man myself.” Tangential heightening enables juxtaposition of emotional perspectives and exploration of theme.
- React – “I love the stars.” “Your astronomy prowess isn’t getting me in bed.” Emotional reactions establish a scenic game to heighten in one scene or juxtaposed scenes.
- Disparate Initiation – “I love the stars.” “Whoa, you hear that?” We don’t have to “make sense” of disparate initiations we can heighten through repetition of the sequence; first time is random, second time is purposeful, third time is expected.
3. Seek to Cement the progression
- Clarify the game(s) by following the moves already made with a move that heightens in the established direction
4. Follow, Heighten and Evolve the established game(s)
- Do more of what was done. Do what was done again bigger. Do what was done again with a different context.
5. Have fun
- On stage you have to focus outward and follow the moment. Hard work and concentrated thinking off stage are necessary to become better improvisers, but you can’t perform to your best ability in your head. There is no reason to get up on an improv stage other than to have fun.
Here are the exercise I employ building to that ultimate goal –
Self Contained Emotional Statement Circle: Everyone stands in a circle. A player provides a Self-Contained Emotional Statement toward an active element – what s/he is doing (“I love filing”), what object s/he shares space with (“Ugh, this ice cream has icicles”), or what s/he is (“I’m super snazzy”). The next player around the circle then provides a brand new, unrelated Self-Contained Emotional Statement (SCES). Play continues with each player providing their own SCES.
• As initiations, SCESs toward active scene elements immediately ground an improviser in a repeatable cause (active element) and (emotional) effect.
1 SCES and 4 Set Moves Tutorial: Have one player get on stage and give an SCES – ex: “I’m afraid of my face.”
Then prompt a player to come up to join that SCES with an Agreement line – ex: “If I see a mirror, I’ll scream.” In agreement this player could say, “I’m also afraid of your face,” or “I’m afraid of my own face.” Remind players that anyone can have what anyone else has; if one player is pregnant, everyone can be pregnant.
Then prompt a third player to come up and join that original SCES with a Tangential line – ex: “I love this fully mirrored room,” or “I’m terrified of my voice.” There is certainly bound to be some overlap between Agreement and Tangential lines, but the nuance is that with Agreement two players share the same perspective, with Tangential two players have related but not identical perspectives.
Then prompt a fourth player to come up and join the original SCES with a Reaction line – ex: “How dare you? I’m the best plastic surgeon around.” This is the type of move we employ most often when starting any typical “two person scene.” What we’ll learn is how to build a group game on top of this interplay between characters.
Finally prompt a fifth player to come up and join the original SCES with a Disparate line – ex: “I’d kill for an apple right now.” The juxtaposition of disparate initiations can be fun. These scenes and games will continue stronger if this second initiation is also a SCES.
SCES and Set Move Lay-ups: Have players split into two lines with one on either side of the stage. One line will initiate with a SCES. The other line will join with one of the 4 Set Moves – whichever they want. After these two lines are given, the players are wiped, each to go to the back of the other line.
SCES, Set and Cement Move Lay-ups: The player at the head of one line initiates with an SCES. The player at the head of the other line joins with one of 4 Set moves. Then either player now at the head of the lines can join the scene in working to establish the progression of the game. This third player can – but does not have to – enter after only two lines are given. For example:
1 – “I’m afraid of my face.” 2 – “If I see a mirror, I’ll scream.” 3 – “Look at the polish on this floor; No, don’t – aaaahhhh.”
1 – “I’m afraid of my face.” 2 – “I love this fully mirrored room.” 3 – “I love it, too; Everywhere you look, there you are.”
1 – “I’m afraid of my face.” 2 – “How dare you? I’m the best plastic surgeon around.” 3 – “I’m afraid of my breasts.”
1 – “I’m afraid of my face.” 2 – “I’d kill for an apple right now.” 3 – “Did someone say they had an apple? I’d slaughter the innocent for one.”
Remember: Simplification and Clarification. A third person must only enter a scene to serve what has already been established. To add a third perspective or to be a third totally unrelated person risks over-complication. Simplify with Agreement, by adopting one of the two perspectives already in play. Clarify with Repetition, by heightening the emotional reaction and stakes already in play.
Organic Group Games: Everyone get on the wings. Anyone is able to contribute the SCES, the Set Move, to add on in seeking to cement a game and/or to add in serving to heighten a game.
As an instructor, you have to pay attention to the progression of made moves so as to be able to talk about how each successive addition affected the trajectory of the scene. There are no mistakes, but there are complications; every new add becomes something else that needs to be folded into the pattern. Encourage simplicity.
You can direct, by stripping back a game that went awry to the last moment it was stable, or by side-coaching a player into a particular move. But I try to keep this to a minimum as you don’t want to kill their momentum, only open their eyes.
There are so many paths these games can take that it is tough to outline any “standard” paths. But here are a few examples from workshops that worked particularly well:
EXAMPLE 1 –
Player One enters miming a rod and saying, “What a great day for fishing.” Player Two enters with a pronounced hunchback and says, “Ah, what a great day for fishing.” Player One looks at Player Two with a large resigned sigh and says, “Hi, Bob.”
A progression of fishermen enter, each with an even more exaggerated physical and verbal disability, and a variation of “What a great day for fishing.” With each entrance Player One gets more and more deflated but still manages a polite “Hi,” naming each entrant.
Player Six enters stage as a happy fish, saying, “What a great day for swimming.” Player Seven enters as a disabled fish…
EXAMPLE 2 –
Player One enters as an old lady proud to say, “Yep, everything I need is in this one bag.” Player Two joins and says sadly, “I think my mother hates me.” Player One responds, “Best get your bag packed.”
Player Three enters on the opposite side of Player One as Player Two, pivoting attention to Player Three and signalling that Player Two should leave. “I think my wife hates me,” Player Three says. “Best get your bag packed,” Player One responds.
Player Four enters on the opposite side of Player One as Player Three, pivoting attention and Player Three leaves. “I think my baby hates me,” Player Four says. “Best pack that baby’s bag,” Player One responds.
EXAMPLE 3 –
Player One enters in fear. “Oh, my god,” she says. “I can’t see anything in this cave.” Player Two enters in mirrored agreement, also scared of the dark cave. Together they freak out. And they worry aloud about the threat of bats.
Player Three enters as a bat and says, “Marco.” Player Four also enters as a bat and says, “Polo.” As the bats play, the initiating players heighten their freak out.
Players Five and Six enter as other scared people.
Players Seven and Eight enter as bats. Player Seven says, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Thomas on over.” The people all scream…
I love Organic Group Games.
Make emotional choices. Establish cause and effect. Follow. Agree. Repeat. Have a ton of fun.