Monday, November 11, 2013

Improv insights from classroom teacher

In my Antioch University (Heritage Institute) drama course, one of my students had some wonderful insights in to improv games, which comes from his experience as a classroom teacher. I would like to share some of his improv game reflections to help other drama teachers with ideas.

My student, Paul, reviewed the book, Nancy Hurley's 175 Theatre Games: Warm-up exercises for Actors, which is an excellent classroom resource that provides excellent improv ideas.

"In my experience, many of the best drama games would work equally as well with 17 year olds as they would with 2nd graders. So, while I might present a game differently to older students, the basic rules and ideas behind it would probably be very similar to those Ms. Hurley writes about in the book.

1. Be A Household Appliance (p. 12) As a great illustration of my point above, I first learned this game in a university classroom, and most of the participants were either graduate-level students or working professional teachers. I've always called the game "Machines," but the basic concept is identical. I use this game within the first three days with a new class, and I find that it accomplishes many goals, including "breaking the ice" socially, getting students to move freely, teamwork, problem solving, and introducing the concept of staying open to an audience. It's also generally a lot of fun to play.

2. Digits (p. 15) Again, this is a game I've played, although I don't recall ever giving it a name. And, as with Machines, I've seen it used successfully as a warmup for actors of all ages. In some ways, I find it to be a barometer of the nature of a group of students. I have rarely, if ever, attempted it with a beginning class, mostly because the frustration level is far too great, especially when my beginning classes average 32-35 students. Impossible would actually be a better description for that sized group. I have used the game with advanced groups, but I find it to be especially effective with the cast of a play production. Thinking back on different shows I've directed, I can almost guarantee that, the more successful they were at this game, the more focused they were onstage. The game requires that most difficult of acting traits, giving the focus to someone else. My favorite comment ever about this game was from a student who advised the rest of the group, "It's not about trying to say the next number, it's about trying NOT to say the next number."

3. Zoom (p. 18) There are many variations of this type of game. The one described in the book is the most basic, involving simply passing a sound around a circle, attempting to have no breaks between the speakers, as a way of building unity and connection within the group. The first complication listed is to try to send two different "zooms" in opposite directions. I have also seen versions where the "zoom" can be interrupted in various ways, allowing participants to call out a different word that requires a response from the whole group. For example, as the "zoom" passes around the circle, one actor, instead of saying "zoom," might say "zombie apocalypse," at which point everyone in the circle would hold their arms out and groan like zombies; or the person might say "Michael Jackson," at which point the whole group would call out "hee hee" in a high pitched voice and do a dance move. There are as many options as there are popular culture references. A fun game.

4. A What? (p. 21) Focus games are essential, and there are a lot of them. This is one I'm slightly familiar with, although I don't remember playing it with any particular success. It seems to involve having a large number of objects available, although it could conceivably be played with imaginary objects. From what I can recall, it's a game that sounds pointless and odd until it's actually played, when it turns out to be fun and challenging. I would be willing to use this as a warmup, although I would probably tweak it a bit from the way it's described in the book.

5. Honey, If You Love Me, Please Smile (p. 25) This is a very popular game that students will beg to play once they've learned it. I've also found that many students know it from other places, such as church youth groups, etc. It can get out of hand but usually doesn't, in my experience. There is definitely a risk of students being uncomfortable with the kind of attention this game brings to them, but in some ways, I think it's important to overcome that discomfort if one wants to actually do any kind of acting onstage. In an introductory class, I try not to push kids in that way, mostly because I know they're not serious about acting and are just taking the class as a fun way to learn about theatre. In an advanced setting or during rehearsals, this game could be useful in pushing actors to break down their boundaries of discomfort. It's risky in a public school environment, so you have to know your students and anticipate how they may react.

6. I'm Going to Hawaii (p. 26) A simple memory game, but I've never played it before. I like the idea of memorizing ever-lengthening lists of random items. I find that many students don't believe in their ability to memorize, so having exercises that develop those skills would be helpful. It sounds like a game that would be hard to play with 30+ students, but it might be possible to divide the class into smaller groups.

7. Bippety Bop (p. 35) This game involves one player who's "it" pointing at a group of three players in the circle, who then must create an elephant with their bodies before the "it" player says a nonsense phrase. I've played variations on this idea before, but typically they involve more than one option for the "it" player to choose from. I wish I could remember what some of those options were at the moment. I think there was a garbage truck? Anyway, I learned this game at a performing arts high school in San Francisco that I visited about 15 years ago. I haven't played the game in quite awhile. I'm pretty sure in their version the phrase was "bippety boppety boo," like in the Disney movie, but maybe the name was changed for this book due to copyright issues.

8. Ho! (p. 38) So I mentioned above that the author of this book was born in 1946. I may be way off base here, but I'm going to guess that, had she been slightly younger, she might not have picked the word "ho" for this game. All I know is, if I told my students to run around calling each other "ho's" it would be highly entertaining, but it would also be fairly inappropriate. In any case, I think I could change the syllable to "hey" or "ha" and accomplish the same purpose.

9. Kitty Wants a Corner (pp. 39-40) I had a student teaching intern last year who loved playing this game with students. It involves a lot of making eye contact and trading places across the circle. I like the use of non-verbal communication needed to be successful in the game. It can become chaotic, especially if students are too competitive. I did have to speak to him about discouraging students from putting so much emphasis on getting to a space in the circle before someone else, as we were having kids knock each other down and push each other over. It may have just been the particular group of students.

10. Leading (p. 40) I took a workshop course once on applying the concepts of Rudolf von Laban to theatre movement. It was fascinating and much more complex than I have time to go into in this brief paragraph. Anyway, afterwards I started doing movement exercises with my students, and one of them included this idea of leading with a particular part of the body. I've used it to develop a character based solely on movement choices -- which parts of the body are heavy/light, slow/quick, fluid/jerky etc… I find the most fun part to be asking students to go from an exaggerated version of, say, "leading with one's nose" to a believable character who happens to lead with his nose when he walks.

11. People Who (p. 43) This was also a popular game my student teacher played several times last year. It's definitely an opportunity for students to release some energy while needing to pay attention. I think the game was played slightly differently, in that the person in the middle had to approach someone in the circle and ask "do you like me" (or some clever variation, I'm sure I have it written down somewhere). The seated person would reply, "No, but I like people who are wearing blue" or whatever variable they chose. At that point everyone wearing blue would have to get up and switch places, and the person in the circle would try to find a seat in the meantime. Again, this could result in tumbled over chairs and flattened students when they got a little too exuberant, but usually it was all in fun.

12. Emotions Characters (p. 46) I have never tried this game, but it sounds interesting. I like the idea of students using nonverbal cues and operating with a partner to develop a "look." The only thing I would warn them of would be the risk involved in "acting an emotion." As Stanislavski and his many followers rightfully pointed out, when one acts an emotion, one creates a false sense of reality. In real life, we don't think "I'm going to be mad now" when something upsets us or "I really want to act sad" when we hear something that saddens us. Doing so would lead to obviously false emotional responses. Instead, we react genuinely to something that has happened, and we think about the stimulus itself, not the emotion. It might be better to change this game slightly and offer scenarios instead of generic emotions. "Look at your partner as if they just told you that your hamster died" would be better than "Look at your partner like you're sad."

13. Greetings (p. 48) This is a fun exercise when you've got a large area to work in. I often use it as a warmup for a rehearsal or improv group meeting in the auditorium. Students need room to walk around to make this work, and while my classroom is bigger than most, it still doesn't really have adequate space for 30+ kids to walk from place to place and greet each other in various ways. There are many variations to the "walking around" idea -- having students touch elbows with 5 people, walk as if they are being followed, mumble "I'm late" as they walk, etc. I find that the more specific and concrete the instructions are, the more effective the "greetings" will be. Saying "greet someone in a business-like way" is less effective than "greet someone as if they are your long lost best friend from when you were five years old."

14. The Machine (p. 49) This is definitely a fun exercise, although I don't remember ever dividing the class in half. I usually try to make one huge machine that includes every student in class. I do this very early in the semester, so I'm trying to remove the idea of performing for an audience and make it more about the activity itself. I also like to keep it to movements only at first, then once everyone has joined the machine, I tell them to add a sound to their movement. But really, these are just personal preferences I've developed. Every teacher has their own approach to using these games, and I'm sure that this one would be just as effective in the way it's described in the book.

15. Presents (p. 50) I usually do this one in a circle rather than with partners, but the main idea is identical. Having the open minded creativity to accept an invisible "gift" and give it an identity can be very freeing. It can also be frightening to students who are less inclined toward showing creativity. This may be an issue of age -- the older they get, the more inhibited students seem to become about making these kinds of public displays. Often, they are afraid of being "wrong" about their choice, even if they know there are really no wrong choices. It's important to accept every choice as great and to continue to encourage students positively -- as long as they aren't making a deliberately inappropriate choice to get a reaction from their peers.

16. Who Am I? (p. 52) This basic structure is the basis of several improv games I've played with students. In "Press Conference," the player is interviewed by the rest of the group as if they were reporters, only he doesn't know who he is. The game is the most fun when the reporters gradually give the "celebrity" clues so that it takes awhile for them to figure it out. However, if the player doesn't know who the celebrity is, it can lead to either frustration or total silliness. "Cocktail Party" is another popular endowment game where the Host of a party is the only one who knows the identity of his guests. Another version, "Party Quirks," is similar, except the audience gives the guests their identities, which the Host helps to communicate to them subtly (or not so subtly after awhile).

17. Alliteration Introduction (p. 62) We just call this one "the Name Game." I use it every semester as a way of helping students to learn each others' names. The difference is, I make each progressive student in the circle remember ALL the names that came before his own name. Then, after we make it around the entire circle, they switch places and I challenge students who were near the beginning of the game (and thus only had to identify a few fellow students) to try to get all of their classmates' names. I usually go last, which gives me time to get everyone's name, although I occasionally miss a few. I've had students continue to use their alliterative nickname all semester long and beyond. "Peanut Butter Patrick" kept his nickname for at least two years after taking Acting 1.

18. Who Started the Motion? (p. 79) I think this must be one of Viola Spolin's games. I have been using it for as long as I've been teaching. It's definitely one of those "we played this in the second grade" games, but it never loses popularity, and it's effective at many levels. Being able to keep a rhythmic movement with the entire class is, in itself, a worthwhile activity, but adding the silent, nonverbal communication of a secret leader makes this one both fun and useful. I usually give kids three guesses before revealing the leader. I also try to encourage the leader to change the motion frequently; otherwise, it's almost impossible for the person who's "it" to guess. I have, on occasion, used two leaders at the same time, which is a mean trick I admit. The real challenge would be to have NO official leader and to see whether the students could stay together. This would be similar to the Digits game, in that you would want to NOT be the one who starts the motion.

19. Mirror Game (p. 86) This is, of course, a classic and one of the few games I remember playing in my own high school drama days that I still use frequently. There are several variations that I've learned to incorporate, such as giving Person A a specific task to do ("get ready for school" or "make and eat your lunch") and having Person B mirror all their actions. Another variation is Department Store Mirror, where three people mirror the actions of one leader. As the book states, it's crucial for them to not try to trick their partner but to work on making their movements fluid and connected.

20. What Are You Doing? (pp. 93-94) Easily one of my favorite improv warmup games. I've found over the years that this game leads seamlessly into "Freeze" improv, which is the basic building block game for many other types of improvisation. The reason this game is so important to student success is its emphasis on ACTIONS, which are, after all, what ACTING is all about. I find that some students think acting (and especially improvisational acting) is all about "being funny" or "being creative" or even "being emotional." Getting them out of that habit of mind is essential. I like building the improv process up from basic actions that anyone can do -- I'm tying my shoe, I'm combing my hair, I'm walking my dog -- and then adding the "Who" and the "Where" later.

Of course, there are far more than 20 games in this book that are or could be useful in my teaching. It's fun to go through and read another teacher's instructions for games I've taught before. One of my great struggles as a Drama teacher has always been trying to write substitute plans that clearly explain Drama Games so that a non-Theatre sub can play them with the class. This book is so clearly and simply written, I feel like I could leave a copy of it on my desk and just write "turn to page 93 and play this game." That alone makes it well worth the price."

Find more improv games, lessons and ideas at (all for free).

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