Mirror, Action, Object an exercise in personal active stakes

Nothing bugs me more than a scene where two improvisers meet stage center, stare only at each other and talk only to and about each other.

I get it. Your stage partner is truly the only other active element on stage with you. But, c’mon, show some imagination.

The audience likes to see us interact with things we imagine. The audience loves to see us care about things we imagine. The audience f*#king adores when what we imagine makes us feel.

If you and/or the ensemble you’re in and/or the ensemble you coach are having the tendency to do centerstage talking heads scenes then this warm-up exercise might be right for you.
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Focus Outward exercises

Focus Outward: There is a ton of material for us to mine in our improv if we are committed to seeing it, hearing it and embracing it. We don’t need to be in our heads worried about making something happen once we learn how we can follow what’s already happening to a collaborative end.

Suggested Exercises:

ACTION PASS – In a circle, a player turns to his left and executes an action, any action. The next player observes that action and attempts to recreate it EXACTLY in turning to the player to their left.
Progression:
• Do it once through. Then immediately have them do it again focused on slowing down and really noticing all the nuances of a player’s action and working to repeat the action exactly.
• Call out people that are in their head and not focused outward
• Call attention to what makes them laugh – straight repetition, embracing something “accidental”
• Call out when someone tries to force the evolution for a laugh – this will happen after they get comfortable with a few “successes” under their belts
Lessons:
See head to toe – take the time to really see all that players are giving you; Where are their toes pointed? How are their shoulders’ squared? What face are they making?
See more than you’re given – the things a player does subconsciously or accidentally should be noticed and repeated; What did they do before and after the action?
There are no mistakes/There is no “right” – there is only “what has happened” and “what’s happening now.”
Repetition is heightening – we don’t need to create unrelated information when there is already material at play to mine. Collaborative evolution is a fun enough; don’t force difference for difference’s sake.

PHRASE PASS – Like Action Pass, but with a sentence.
Progression:
• Focusing on exactly what was given to you
• Pick just one thing (one word, emotion, inflection, character, etc.) and heighten it 2 notches
Lessons:
• Even with small things, we create a feedback loop that will heighten everything we do to places no one could imagine or achieve on their own
You don’t have to force evolution – if everyone is concentrated on heightening what they see and hear, the phrase will naturally change. We want to continue embracing small changes to foster evolution instead of forcing mutations that separate an individual from the group.

Action Pass exercise

ACTION PASS – In a circle, a player turns to his left and executes an action, any action. The next player observes that action and attempts to recreate it EXACTLY in turning to the player to their left.
Progression:
• Do it once through. Then immediately have them do it again focused on slowing down and really noticing all the nuances of a player’s action and working to repeat the action exactly.
• Call attention to what makes them laugh – straight repetition, embracing something “accidental”
Lessons:
Focus Outward – take the time to really see all that players are giving you. The first step in reacting to what’s happening is seeing what’s happening.
Support your fellow player’s moves – There are no mistakes/There is no “right.” There is only “what has happened” and “what’s happening now.”

Group Mind exercises

Group Mind: Having Group Mind is about immediate, enthusiastic acceptance. You need to show your fellow players that you respect and love their ideas, and trust that you can make a bold move and have your group respect and love it. “I trust you – I’m going to follow your ideas whatever they are, wherever they go, and I’m going to launch into my ideas and trust that you’ll follow me.” It is, however, not up to the group to earn this trust. You must surrender to the group. Give it your trust. Only then will the group get anywhere.

Suggested Exercises:

I AM SUPERMAN – Everyone stands in a circle. One at a time, each player will enter the circle, say “I am [NAME] and for the next 30 seconds, I am Superman” at which point the teacher will start a timer and the player does whatever they want until the time is up at which point everyone claps and the next player takes the circle. Players around the circle are NOT to interact with the player in the center. The player in the center should be encouraged to do something they’ve been told they need to do more of on stage. Do mime. Be emotional. Stand still. Doesn’t matter.
Lessons:
• Surrender to your group – let go of ego, let your team know that you’re ready and willing to commit to being awkward in front of them.
You don’t need anyone – you can be on stage alone for 30 seconds or for five minutes. Commit to yourself. Don’t rely on meeting your scene partner center stage before the scene starts. You can be alone.
It sucks to be alone – don’t let your fellow players suffer on stage alone. Get out there and support each other.

MIRRORING INTO BUZBY BURKLEY – everyone must commit to following and looking idiotic together. Get them to let go, trust each other and the teacher. Start everyone in paired lines, facing off as if looking into a mirror at one another. Have them start mirroring each other – head to toe, leading by following, heightening subconscious contributions, etc. – and have them keep going as you give more instructions.
Progression:
• Start with mirrored pairs
• Allow people to move closer and farther apart
• Allow people to move left and right, overlapping other mirrored pairs
• Allow people to switch the player they’re mirroring, making and breaking different groups
• Build to everyone moving around the room, switching mirroring, coming together, breaking apart – committing to following the crazy
Lessons:
• If everyone is “doing it” then no one looks dumb “doing it” – but the moment it becomes apparent that someone in the group is not committed then the audience doubts the entire endeavor.
When you are “playing” others want to play with you – if you’re having fun and committing the audience will follow you no matter how silly you look
That is the weirdest thing I’ll ever have you do – thank them for just doing what you asked them to without judgment; encourage them to remain that trusting throughout class

Kick The Duck, Red Rover exercise

Simplifying and Clarifying: The sooner everyone is on the same page, the sooner we can heighten and evolve collaboratively.

Our main tool of simplification is Agreement – the more players that mirror/agree, the less different stuff there is on stage to negotiate.

The more people you’re playing with the clearer you have to be. Our main tool of clarification is Repetition. The first time something happens, it’s random; the second time is purposeful; the third time is expected.

A group of people can take the stage and confidently navigate chaos by focusing outward, seeking symmetries, making differences matter and clarifying sequences of cause and effect through repetition.

Through “Kick The Duck, Red Rover,” players learn to focus outward and make the random purposeful by mirroring, heightening and supporting one another.

KICK THE DUCK, REDROVER – “On the count of three, everyone will be playing a game without words. You will collaborate to establish focus and define the rules of your game. One, two, three, go!” This game starts with impossible chaos but becomes manageable and then successful as the teacher lays on instructions with each iteration and the group feels how to build collaboratively.
Progression/Lessons:
• Someone will use gibberish to direct other players’ actions – Stop them and remind them to lead by following
• Ask “How did the game start?” They will tell you about the first move that was made. Remind them that the game started when you said “go.” Have them return to their positions and postures when you said “go.” Ask them to focus outwardly on what is already there at that moment.
Seek Symmetries – Are you standing near someone? Posed like someone? If you seem like you could be aligned with someone, align yourself with them; do what they do. This agreement fosters focus.
Empower Asymmetries – How do the different groupings relate? Make the asymmetries that exist matter. How does one group react to the other? What does one group do to another?
• Have the group shake it off, walk around the room and then, when teacher says “go,” start a new game focused on Seeking Symmetries and Empowering Asymmetries.
• Stop and ask them to walk you through what happened, with players explaining what they saw and what they did in response. Tease out “When X happened, Y happened.”
• “What rules were you playing by?” We want players to observe cause-and-effect and seek to clarify the “rule” with repetition. Make another X happen to make another Y happen. If you see X happen again, make Y happen again. Work to notice not only what is happening, but how what happens relates to what happened before. And pay attention to what happens after. Even if there is no inherent connection between the first set of moves, by working to repeat that sequence we begin to establish rules and clarify group direction.
Everyone is necessarily “playing by their own rules” – but if each individual is committed to simplifying and clarifying then a group direction will emerge.
• If something is not clear, don’t ignore it or play it half-assed, make it clearer – by heightening it or otherwise clarifying the move. If you’re lost, chances are the rest of the group is too. Don’t wait for someone else to clarify what’s going on; take responsibility yourself. The rest of the group will thank you.
• “Can you go back and start this game over?” When they’ve learned to seek symmetries, empower asymmetries, establish and repeat rules of cause and effect, it’s time to get them to Reset the Game Sequence. Have them go back to their initial starting positions and try to do the same game again exactly. It won’t be exact; it will evolve, but it will evolve organically because they are attempting to do it exactly.
If you’re ever lost, return to what was done before – engage a rule again. Restart the sequence. Going through a game again will build clarity and simplifies the amount of stuff in play.
• After they have a great game, they are likely to have a game become super sloppy because they got too excited and stopped leading by following.
Trust the pattern – don’t overcomplicate. The sooner everyone is on the same page, the sooner we can heighten and evolve collaboratively.  My favorite aspect of the video above is how the group clearly starts to have fun with a very simple progression 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.

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Here’s a video of me teaching the group the Kick The Duck, Red Rover exercise that culminates in the clip above.  It’s long, containing many iterations of the exercise by the group with lots of rambling by me in between those iterations.  But talk about a progression!  Watch them grow:

Buzby Burkley exercise

Having Group Mind is about immediate, enthusiastic acceptance. You need to show your fellow players that you respect and love their ideas, and trust that you can make a bold move and have your group respect and love it. “I trust you – I’m going to follow your ideas whatever they are, wherever they go, and I’m going to launch into my ideas and trust that you’ll follow me.” It is, however, not up to the group to earn this trust. You must surrender to the group. Give it your trust. Only then will the group get anywhere.

MIRRORING INTO BUZBY BURKLEY – everyone must commit to following and looking idiotic together. Get them to let go, trust each other and the teacher. Start everyone in paired lines, facing off as if looking into a mirror at one another. Have them start mirroring each other – head to toe, leading by following, heightening subconscious contributions, etc. – and have them keep going as you give more instructions.
Progression:
• Start with mirrored pairs
• Allow people to move closer and farther apart
• Allow people to move left and right, overlapping other mirrored pairs
• Allow people to switch the player they’re mirroring, making and breaking different groups
• Build to everyone moving around the room, switching mirroring, coming together, breaking apart – committing to following the crazy
Lessons:
• If everyone is “doing it” then no one looks dumb “doing it” – but the moment it becomes apparent that someone in the group is not committed then the audience doubts the entire endeavor.
When you are “playing” others want to play with you – if you’re having fun and committing the audience will follow you no matter how silly you look
That is the weirdest thing I’ll ever have you do – thank them for just doing what you asked them to without judgment; encourage them to remain that trusting throughout class

One Person Scenes exercises

One Person Scenes: We simplify by minimizing the number of perspectives on stage through agreement. We build collaboratively through enthusiastic acceptance. Emotional reaction is most important piece of content.

Performers are: Steve Curtis, Noel Elias, Nolan Graveley, Andy Lett-Durant, Blake Mirzayan and Emma Trachman

ONE PERSON SCENES – Groups of 5 or 6, line up along an assembly line conveyor belt. Have them mime something coming down the line. When you say, “Go,” someone will voice a SCES which everyone else will agree with and heighten through repetition. Their miming is just an activity for their hands; it is NOT what the scene is about.
Lessons:
• The clearer the emotional perspective the better – if you don’t think it’s clear, clarify it by heightening the emotion
Like 21, don’t rush to speak – You have something to do with your hands. You also have an emotional perspective to fill your face with.
Agreeing to the emotion is more important than heightening the details with words – remember an enthusiastic “yeah” will always be funnier than a rambling monologue
There are no questions in agreement
• Share the air space – Put periods at the end of your sentences.
Agree despite “sense” – If someone has a tumor, each person can have a tumor. If someone’s pregnant, each person can be pregnant.
Variations:
• If an emotional perspective is heightened to its apex, the group can follow another emotional perspective, but push them to explore the heights before changing.
• Feel free to break them away from the conveyor belt to a new environment, but beware this will cause them to talk about what they’re doing and/or drop physicality – You can use the resultant chaos as a transition…
Or… you can transition with, “Bored of the conveyor belt? Let’s work on building your own stage pictures with agreement.”

Performers are: Steve Curtis, Noel Elias, Nolan Graveley, Andy Lett-Durant, Blake Mirzayan and Emma Trachman

Focusing Stage Picture exercises

Focusing Stage Picture: Staging an environment in a group game breeds potential complications as players abandon pattern for roles and over-prioritize explaining who they are and what they’re doing. But attention to the elements of stage picture can help focus a group scene and facilitate quick collaborative heightening.

Suggested Exercises:

STAGE PICTURE TABLEAUS – One by one, players enter stage, fleshing out a picture with static poses and/or repetitive motion. Teacher gives a suggestion of a location, for example, “Apple Orchard,” “Beach,” “Race Track.”
Progression/Lessons:
• Players tend to want to fill in all the possible roles in a location. An orchard has pickers, trees, baskets, landscapers, squirrels.
• Ask “Where’s the focus?” They won’t know.
Build deliberately with agreement – There’s no reason we can’t all be trees. A scene about five trees and one squirrel will be easier to find and heighten faster than a scene where six separate entities struggle for reason to exist.
Seek symmetries; empower asymmetries
• Ask “Is this a One Person, Two Person, or Three Person Scene?”
• Ask “Who should talk first?”
• Have them point out the groups, defining focus. Point out Upstage/Downstage distinctions for focus. Point out who can see who, and so who has to take their cues from who
Variations:
• Push them to define more and more abstract environments; i.e., NASA, Hell.
• Speed loading – have everyone crowd the space quickly upon hearing the suggestion, making bold choices and seeking symmetries faster.

 

ONE, TWO, THREE PERSON SCENES – Player build tableaus and then get to talk. Remember, Self Contained Emotional Statements. To start, players should align their emotional perspectives with the other players they are physically mirroring/complimenting.
Lessons:
• Simplify and find focus through agreement in stage picture and emotional perspectives
• There’s no reason we can’t always do One Person Scenes – even if our physicality is different
When you do have groups, don’t fall to negotiations, arguments or other lines of questioning – exploring juxtaposed emotional perspectives is all the scene we need
Variations:
• Have everyone pick someone to agree with before the suggestion is given – players can mirror/compliment one player’s physicality and another player’s emotional perspective; it can be fun to surrender to being forced into aligning with a perspective despite “sense”