4 To The Ether games

My latest Patterns & Games class embraced To The Ether style group games like no other class I’ve had. They had three To The Ether games in their showcase! It brings a tear to this guy’s eye.

I’m sharing 4 of them that I (obviously) recorded. They each showcase a nice lesson.

The 1 2 3 and Done

Sometimes one Offer move, one Set move, and one Cement move are all you need. The game progresses clearly and heightens to a collaboratively-built punchline. This was the case with this one.


The Set-Up

Games often last longer than three moves (Blackouts are usually two).

Even when a To The Ether game’s progression is clear, it’s often fun to play beyond the Cement move with the game the move cemented.

And sometimes there’s no place to go beyond the last move. So what do you do? You loop back. Starting the 2nd Pass can be a heavy mantle for the game’s Initiator; they don’t want to jump the gun if a final player is on the cusp of joining with a killer addition, but they don’t want much empty air settling in while they wait. I say, when in doubt, Reset.

So simply restarting the pattern is important enough; the Initiator shouldn’t delay a needed Reset because they’re overthinking what to say.

But now that a 2nd Pass has started – the Set Passthe Initiator can be thinking about how they’d start a 3rd Pass. They have time – the 2nd pass will take some time to return to the Initiator. So if they can think of a line that will be funniest when spoke through the filter of another player down the pass? That’s gold. And that was the case with this one.

Note, too, that the fun connection of “hotter and hotter” of the 3rd Pass initiation and Lucy’s “looking at the sun” silo, meant that big laugh happened before the last player. THAT’S OKAY!!! Please, the Rule of 3s, like every rubric, is a tool not a rule.


The Characters in a Categories Run

1 2 3 and Done is very difficult to do when the first two moves are Poles – North & South, Hot & Cold, Love & Hate, Etc. & Et Al.

The inclination of the 3rd Player is to try and split the difference. It rarely works as the final move – only Harry Shearer can earn an edit with “lukewarm water.”

So it’s not 1 2 3 and Done. IT’S OKAY!!! What’s awesome is how quickly so many other improvisers rush on stage to support the ensemble. This group never hesitated to get on stage and support the moment without worry about “where it was going.” SIX players join the three already on stage, quickly and confidently establishing their own “I just love [blanking] lives” filter.

Now we label a “Categories Run” any sequence that can be reordered with just the same impact. “Blue,” “Yellow,” “Red,” for example, are contributions that would mean the same in any order. There’s nothing wrong with a Categories Run. When we recognize that we’re in one, though, the key is realizing “we’re not earning our edit on a progression.” So…that means…we have to double down on our Character and Emotion.

Clearly, I am a Patterns & Games guy. But Character and Emotion have to remain the heart of all improvisation.

And so, when the 1st Pass ends without a clear edit point, this group doubles down on the characters and emotions of their silos while honoring the verbal pattern.

Again, we don’t have to wait to reach the end of the pass to deliver an edit.

And let’s note that a straight line across the front of the stage is the least interesting stage picture for a To The Ether game. Improvisers end up falling into a line to denote a To The Ether game, and that position gets followed, but we should strive to bring more interesting stage pictures to all of improv’s Line games.


The Tight and Loose

Learn rigidly to play loosely. There’s absolutely value in playing tight patterns like the 1 2 3 and Done. So learn the rubrics and trust the value of their simplicity to connect you to your fellow players, the audience, and the moment.

But know it’d be a shame to ever sacrifice YOU to rigidly following the pattern. Again, the rubrics are tools not rules. Make them speak through you; don’t speak through them.

Of course, the key to being able to make a skill your own? Learn it rigidly to play loosely.

The following To The Ether was the final scene in this class’ Showcase – that‘s how much they embraced this simply complex pattern game.


It’s a Categories game, but… “Prettiest” is narrower than “1st place.” “Top Dog” needed “Boss” to precede it. And “being, like, really smart” while closer to the first two moves than the last two, also brings in a wrinkle. The verbal pattern is changed with a “like,” which is a nonsense word we don’t typically associate with “smart.”

Because it felt different, there’s no pairing of “smart” with another improviser stage left of our “top dog.” And, just like with lukewarm water, you can’t end on a reduction in force.

So we have a 2nd pass. Emotion heightens at every node. And, like the 1st Pass, the verbal pattern is kept tight, and then loosens with Kelly.

And then 3rd pass. In addition to heightening emotion we get a natural evolution of physicality. Tim and Jo at center both flex their arm muscles along with their contribution. Lucy delivers a karate kick like a boss and Jameson lifts a leg like a dog. And, Kelly, arms crossed, blows out the group’s emotional noise while keeping with her character.

It’s worth noting, too, that Kelly had earlier in the set, drawn the edit of a Hey Everybody by nature of playing her authentically, committed, rambling character (which was a joy in class as well). So in addition to all the rest of the reasons why this game ended, there is a callback by way of an audience- sees-the-improviser-authentically moment. That’s improv as improv does best.

And once in a lifetime will an audience have that shared experience of coming to know an improviser through their showing commitment to an ensemble by closing out two organic scenes in a Patterns & Games showcase.

That’s Improv As Improv Does Best.

Performers in these videos include: Jamie Allison, Tim Armstrong, Jameson Babbowski, Kelly Barnes, Annie Barone, Lucy Bno, Josh Cromwell, Bill Hancock, Felipe Nascimento, Jo Sandager, Drew Simmons, Shelby Van Stavern, and Hannah Zaino

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