This is the second entry in 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!
Today, the spotlight is on a fun set of warm-up exercises that explore the second commandment concept of focus: All Together Now.
There are three stages or phases of this exercise that I tend to stagger over subsequent classes.
Phase One: Players stand spread out through the available space. Each player is instructed to come up with a unique and sustainable sound – it can be vocal, percussive, or a combination of both, but it shouldn’t be something that will cause discomfort if they continue it for a sustained duration of time (slapping their chest, for example might become regrettable). Once the ensemble has had a chance to hear all the sounds (and quickly change any that might be too similar to prior choices), everyone closes their eyes. The group then makes a soundscape. When any one player begins their pre-established sound, all players should join as quickly as possible. When any player randomly chooses to stop, similarly other players must do so as soon as they notice that an element is now missing.
Phase Two: Players spread out through the available space and start moving at a reasonably fast pace. When any one player decides to stop moving, the whole ensemble stops and freezes. The group remains still until another player randomly decides to return to movement, at which point the rest of the ensemble must restart their pacing as quickly as possible.
Phase Three: Combining the two games above, players determine and share different sounds that they can sustain. Once the library of sounds has been shared, players are instructed to move through the space. If anyone drops their sound out of the mix, other players must do the same. Similarly, if anyone stops moving, the rest of the ensemble must also come to stasis. Silence and/or stillness continue until a random player elects to return sound and/or movement to the mix.
This warm-up sequence very much explores deep listening, awareness of the group (and changes therein), as well as the concept of proprioception, our body’s awareness of its relationship to other bodies moving through the space. Dancers often have a highly developed sense of this skill as it allows them to assume formations without actively and manually checking their spacing from other dancers. While challenging, especially the third iteration, these exercises can also provide a fitting illustration of how much we can receive and process when we are truly focused on the group.
Traps and Tips
1.) Keep your eye on the prize. These exercises can certainly be a little silly and playful, which is certainly a value in and of itself, but if the group becomes unfocused, the benefit of the exercise will quickly become lost. In most cases, these operate well as quicker warm-ups.
2.) Move with purpose. Versions two and three become less challenging and dynamic if participants are not moving through the space with dynamism and abandon. Unless you are working in a large space, I wouldn’t advise running, but there should be a sense of urgency. Also be wary of just walking in predictable patterns or circles.
3.) Concentrate on the gap between first and last. In simple terms, the goal is to reduce the amount of time between when the first person stops moving (or making their sound) and the last person stops after they have recognized the change in the group. When the exercise is working well, this difference can be surprisingly and invigoratingly small.
4.) Encourage unpredictable tempos. It can be a bit of a “cheat” if you fall into a steady rhythm of stops and starts. If you are playing with your ensemble, you can throw a spanner in the works if this is happening by making a sudden adjustment yourself, otherwise you might need to offer this encouragement as a side-coaching moment.
5.) Don’t rush to the third iteration. Especially if you’re working with an ensemble that is just getting to know each other, the third phase can be surprisingly challenging and might be a little disheartening. I’d recommend revisiting the first two versions for a while if you suspect the combination might overwhelm your group.
This can be a great quick warm-up for rehearsals and before performances once the group has been introduced to the concept, especially the second movement-only version. Similarly, if you’re exploring a piece that requires a large ensemble to work closely together onstage, this can be a highly effective way of exploring unison movement and tempos.
Connected Concept: Commandment #2