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!
Today, I’m inspired by the third commandment and the concept of shining with an exercise designed to help unify our goal as a team called “Raise the Stakes”.
One player is identified as the protagonist of the scene and provided with a specific goal or “want” to achieve, such as preparing a surprise dinner. Other players take turns entering and provide proportionate and building offers that raise the stakes (import) or increase the urgency of the scene.
Player A is cooking a surprise dinner for their significant other (“Z”) who has been out of town for several months.
Player B enters and announces that Z’s plane landed an hour earlier than scheduled.
Player C enters and informs “A” that there are rolling power outages in the area.
Player D enters as “A” and “Z’s” child afraid of the dark and in need of help with the welcome back art project…
In many ways if the ensemble is unified in their focus, player “A” has the easiest job as protagonist as they must merely respond honestly to each new offer while simultaneously striving to complete the task at hand. Player “A” should remain as the clear protagonist and it’s important that we do not lose sight of their journey and emotional truth.
Traps and Tips
1.) Give the protagonist space to react and respond. Especially as the exercise builds, it can be easy to overwhelm the protagonist with multiple offers landing simultaneously or voluminous paragraphs of information. Therefore, it’s critical to allow each choice to land and change the protagonist before adding and layering on new elements. Keep in mind, the audience is experiencing the scene from this character’s point of view, so they need space to make reactions clear.
2.) Pace and build the complications. Invariably someone will have a great idea that drastically bends the curve of absurdity. In the above example, if character “Z” were to arrive as the first offer, it’s foreseeable that there would no longer be much room to increase the stakes and urgency. Focus on small and logical steps, ideally that build on games and premises already in play. Part of the fun and challenge of this exercise is making sure that your move leaves room for those that follow to build as well.
3.) Keep your eye on the prize. It’s certainly a viable tactic to give the protagonist tasks that will pull them away from their greater objective, but if this foundational need becomes completely eclipsed, the driving force of the scene might become lost. If you are the protagonist, make sure distractions aren’t too successful. If this begins to happen, double down on the importance of your primary goal.
4.) Embrace the environment and physicality. As the game escalates, it can be easy to forget established staging elements. Pay particular attention to the placement of doors and major set pieces. Mimed props can become great ways to lean even further into the game. What if “D” from above wanders off with the box of uncooked pasta for their art project that “A” was just about to put into the pot…?
5.) Don’t overstay your welcome in the scene. While introduced characters could remain onstage or return later in the exercise, be wary of overwhelming the stage picture. The protagonist is more likely to have to compete for attention if they have multiple other characters onstage with them for the majority of the scene. Remember, the goal is to explore strategies for enabling them to go on a clear journey and “shine”.
This is certainly a viable dynamic to infuse in your short- or long-form scenic work and can help craft a rising action or push a central character to a moment of crisis or epiphany. As is the case with most games, give each small step its time in the sun and avoid jumping to the climax.
Connected Concept: Commandment #3