Monday, 15 February 2010

Improvisation Workshops: Week 1

I’d planned some ice-breaking exercises and group complicity building ones, and I had to adjust slightly as we were only four, that first time. All the same, we were fairly representative of the mix of participants I expect to be getting. We had H, who’s never done any improvising or performing before, G who studied theatre in university and does a lot of improvising as a musician, and M and myself who have studied theatre and take workshops every chance we get, but are not expert improvisers.
After a very basic physical warmup, we stayed standing in a circle (well, square) and tried a couple of exercises that I’ve done in so many workshops that I’ve got no idea whose practice they come from originally.

Throwing an invisible ball : Group

In this exercise, players stand in a circle. One player mimes holding an invisible ball, and, by eye-contact alone, signals to which other player she is intending to throw it. Once the other player is ready to receive, the ball is thrown and caught. The player who has received the imaginary ball makes eye contact with a new person and the process repeats until everyone has thrown and received the imaginary ball.


This is a great game for starting to work on complicity, and I’ve seen it played, by a large group, for over 10 minutes. Because there were so few of us, and because I was keen to stress the fun, rather than the discipline of the game, we moved on very quickly to a variation. Too quickly, I now think.

Throwing an invisible ball, variation

As before, only this time the ball changes after being caught. Thrown and caught as a baseball, it might be thrown again as a basketball, a ping pong ball, a hockey puck, whatever. It’s not about being explicit in miming the new ball, it’s about the conviction with which you imagine the new ball.


We had fun with this, but, in retrospect, we were being pretty slapdash and slapstick about it. I want to try both these exercises in a more focused way, concentrating on the imagining of it and on keeping the communication minimal. I suspect, as well as working more directly on the skills we need to develop, that this would be more fun.

Packing my suitcase: Group

This is a verbal game, it’s about imagination and memory. The first player begins by saying “I’m packing my suitcase, and I’m taking” or words to that effect, then naming an object that starts with the letter “A”.

EX: I’m packing my suitcase, and I’m taking an ant farm.

The second player repeats the first player’s sentence, adding something that begins with the letter “B”.

EX: I’m packing my suitcase and I’m taking an ant farm and some bluebells.

The game continues around the circle, the list of things packed getting ever longer until the letter “Z” is reached.


The idea, as with all improvisation games of this type is to not leave players enough time to come up with something clever or original, but to have them say the first thing that comes into their minds. We didn’t always manage to keeep it at this speed, but one indication that we got it sometimes was the “Foo-foo machine” packed by H. We all loved the Foo-foo machine and I’m plotting ways to use it again.

Packing my suitcase, variation

Because I tend to work too much from the head, I didn’t want this to just be a talking game, but one in which the whole body was involved. So, I added an illustrative gesture to each alphabetical object.


The gestures were a lot of fun, but they got pretty sloppy pretty fast. We were much better at remembering words than gestures.

One word, one step: Pairs

This is an exercise I remember from my undergraduate study at UCLAN. The partners alternate in making a story together by speaking one word each. At the same time, they walk through the space, taking one step for each word spoken. They are not to walk without speaking or speak without walking.


I guess it’s about building complicity again, and about restricting the opportunities for being clever. You can’t think too far ahead, and you can’t duck the responsibility of coming up with something. Because the something is so small, a single word, the responsibility is small enough for even the newest improviser.
Because I only had thee participants, I was in one of the two pairs, so don’t have much in the way of observation to add. U think the exercise helped in the evening’s overall goal of short-circuiting the “I look/sound so silly” reflex that inhibits new performers.

Giving/receiving a gift: Pairs

This is a Keith Johnstone exercise, from Impro for Storytellers. One partner mimes giving a gift, the other receives it, with pleasure, naming the gift as the take it. For me, one of the crucial things about such exercises is that participants should be encouraged to imagine the gift as vividly as they can, but not to go out of their way to establish it with mime. The giver provides a gesture which is the impetus for the receiver to name the gift; they create it together.
EX: A approaches B, arm loosely up in the air, fingers bunched. Perhaps she is imagining a balloon on a string, or holding a giant by his thumbnail. He extends the arm towards B, who, following an imaginary line up from A’s hand exclaims, delightedly: “A llama, thank you!”


Johnstone has several variations of this exercise and we moved among them pretty chaotically, again, in part because I had to form half a pair. I want to go back to it, concentrating on the different ways the gift can be established and negotiated. Even with the half attention I was able to spare the others, it seemed to me that our energy was all over the place instead of focused within a given pair, so I decided to apply the granddaddy of pairwork complicity exercises.

The mirror game: Pairs

If you’ve ever taken an acting class, you’ve probably played the mirror game. I don’t know who used it first and I don’t remember ever not knowing it. A and B face each other, palms outspread and held to either side of their face and slightly forward, as if rested on a mirror. There should be a few inches of space between the palms. A begins to move, slowly, B to copy her as close in time as she can, to achieve the illusion of a mirror. Once a pair is working well, they can trade who leads and who follows back and forth in silent communication, their movements can become more extravagant.
The mirror game, variation
A pair with good complicity can move quite far apart and remain each other’s mirrors. I’ve even seen people mirror each other standing side to side, with only the barest of peripheral vision to work from.


Peripheral vision is the key to this game, along with a kind of openness. It’s about picking up all the hundreds of tiny cues that your partner’s body is constantly giving off about its intensions and responding to them without consciously processing. Similar things must happen in a fight, or a sparring bout.
We did this for only a short period of time, and I didn’t really enforce the discipline of it. Next time well do it for longer, and in absolute silence. I want to get to the place where neither in the pair is certain who’s leading, where the cooperation of it and the competition of it are seamless, and equally playful.

Many storytellers, one acter-out

This is another exercise I remember from my first year at UCLAN and don’t know the provenance of. The group collaborate to tell a story, and one member has to act it out as they go along.


I wanted to finish with an exercise where everybody was working together, and we had fun with this. A larger group might have had a broader imagination to draw on, certainly we got a bit bored by the time the last person performed.
This is an exercise I should have reviewed before trying it. It’s only in writing it up that I’ve seen what it was about. The joy of it lies in the group trying to wrongfoot the soloist, and in the soloist’s ingenuity in depicting the impossible. I’ll stress that next time, and derail the attempts of the participants to have the story “make sense”.

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