This is an occasional series describing improv games, exercises or strategies that I’ve been thinking about lately. As I’m working my way through the “Ten Commandments” of Theatresports, I’m pairing helpful games with the current principle or rule in a shorter and pithier blog entry. I heard you Norman!
Today, the spotlight is on an elegant little exercise that explores the first commandment concept of blocking (negating) and accepting (yielding). It’s called “Reiterate/Repeat”.
Generally but not exclusively played in pairs, players create a scene where each subsequent line of dialogue must first reiterate or repeat the essence of your fellow player’s prior line of dialogue before adding new material.
Player A: “It’s a beautiful day for a picnic.”
Player B: “It is a beautiful day for a picnic. I just happen to have the perfect picnic blanket!”
Player A: “The perfect picnic blanket?! You won’t believe that I have a basket already packed!”
Player B: “Already packed?! Then jump on my bicycle and let’s go…”
As you play it quickly becomes clear that the reiteration is a literal equivalent of the improv “yes…” with the new information serving as the “and…” As an added bonus, the game truly promotes active listening as you cannot repeat something that you weren’t paying attention to, and similarly encourages small and inherent steps as your addition should build clearly off the prior idea.
Traps and Tips
1.) Don’t abandon the language game too early. Encourage players to really embrace the central dynamic as the excitement of the scene can quickly result in no longer using and reaping the benefit of the given frame. This has the added advantage of slowing overeager players down a little, enabling them to pay closer attention to the details of the scene as they unfold.
2.) You can take liberties with the repeats. Reiterations and repeats need not be cumulative (you don’t need to paraphrase all prior choices), nor do they have to be literal. You can shift emphasis, change pronouns, and abridge as feels appropriate. In fact, I’d say taking such liberties is half the fun of the game.
3.) Repetitions shouldn’t become “filler”. Avoid the trap of repeating the prior line in a non-emotive manner: it helps for you to have a clear point of view and energy rather than using the repetition as a stalling device while you come up with what you’d like to add. Give it a nuanced subtext and full emotional weight.
4.) Push to the action. This is good advice for all scenes and exercises, but the verbal focus and nature of this game makes it particularly prone to becoming a talking heads dynamic. Make sure you’re not just talking about things but that they actually transpire as well.
5.) Explore different tempos and heats. These can have a shorter shelf life as scenes, especially if players really allow the energy to build between each offer. Challenge players to explore a more gradual build or assume a more “kitchen sink” premise to prolong the game and its benefits.
This is probably not an approach you’ll use frequently within an improv evening although it can be a great way to kick-start a scene or get onto the same page with another improviser with whom you may not be initially gelling. Style scenes with elevated speech, on the other hand, can often really benefit from this dynamic: it has a nice Shakespearean feel, in particular, and can encourage fun word play and connections.
This is the first contribution to the ImprovDr Game Library where you can access a wealth of exercises, warm-ups and performance frames. Explore the library here or head over to the search engine here.
Connected Concept: Commandment #1