(One player imitates throwing a dagger across the circle at another player)
(The second player imitates a swift and defiant catch of the dagger)
One of my favorite warm-ups begins this way. Multiple invitations are thrown around the circle, each requiring eye contact and agreement to receive and play this Game.
In an improv scene, the base reality is crafted with ‘yes, and’; upon this foundation the players discover the first unusual thing that can inspire their Game together. Once found, players decide upon the Game they’ll play together, and build it with asking, ‘if this is true, what else is true?’.
Recently, I was in a scene where no matter what my character said, it was wrong, and my character was screamed at. My character’s sister was always right, and throughout the scene we played a Game where, no matter what correct thing my character said, it was criticized and punished, and no matter what my character’s sister said, it was praised and celebrated. I loved it. It was silly, well-heightened, and delightfully ridiculous.
It’s an agreement that other players arrive to in order to truly establish the Game; a player doesn’t establish the Game on their own. Other players receive the Game invitation, respond to it with a contribution that shows they understand, and yes, they are willing to play this Game. What follows when successful is a delightful back-and-forth Game on stage, where the improvisers are all on board with playing the same Game, collectively and collaboratively building and moving it along (though their characters may disagree).
Take Scout, my border jack, for example. In this photo, she leans back gleefully, having offered the Invitation to play. She wants you to chase her, or toss the ball, she wants to offer her energy, and have you meet it with your own. She can’t force the Game on you.
On stage, the Game is built on the base reality, mutual commitment, and a foundation of trust. Off the stage, if this trust doesn’t happen, if someone is the butt of the jokes, they can feel bullied, hung out to dry, and wounded. In high school, I had a teacher who treated me very similarly to the scene from earlier; he offered a lot of negative criticism and insults in response to my good grades in his class. Someone asked if that scene was tough for me to play, given that personal experience. In this case it wasn’t: the game was agreed upon, we improvisers knew we were supporting each other while playing characters that didn’t. Having my full improvisational agency, the content was able to be playful and unthreatening rather than abusive or demeaning.
I wonder about the dance between Fun and Safety on the improv stage. Where does the pursuit of fun cross a line, destroying someone’s felt sense of safety and trust among their peers? If the Game is built by agreement and collective energy of all players, what kind of damage can happen if we try to play alone, or on the backs of others? We risk a lame scene, we risk an abusive scene, we risk injuring the integrity of the scene as well as lose out on the beautiful and abundant energy available when everyone’s energy is contributing to the whole.
How could our society benefit if we practiced invitation and waiting for the agreement, if we practiced more of the give-and-take that creates the Game? How could we rescue ourselves and our relationship dynamics if we were to take such a posture of collaborated playfulness, grounded in respect, safety, trust, and honor? All relationships take negotiation; no one size fits all. This unusual thing to one context could spark this Game, while the same unusual thing in that context could spark a different Game. The playing will depend on the people and personalities in the scene, and it will be different with each combination of people.
The principles of “got your back” and supporting each other offer a refreshing and healthy model of sharing power that creates community based in mutuality. Imagine the abundance of ideas, life, and energy in the circle when no one is the back upon which others stand.
Evey McKellar is a Level 6 Improv student, a writer and UMC clergy. She works for a nonprofit, lives in Dallas, and loves Cane Rosso.