This is the next entry in a 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 under consideration. This week, I’m exploring the concept of waffling as outlined in the sixth commandment with a game I play a lot with my campus troupe called Sentences.
This is optimal with a team of four players but could certainly be played with more or less. In addition to a regular suggestion to launch the scene, acquire a four-letter name or word from the audience (ideally with four different letters). Each team member, standing in a line, is assigned the number that corresponds to the next sequential letter (“A” = 1, “B” = 2, and so on). For the duration of the scene, each player must speak in sentences that contain their specified number of words.
If the name “Juan” is obtained from the audience:
- Player A (assigned the “J”) must speak in sentences with 10 words
- Player B (assigned the “U”) must speak in sentences with 21 words
- Player C (assigned the “A”) must speak in sentences with 1 word
- Player D (assigned the “N”) must speak in sentences with 14 words
The challenge of this game changes depending on how many words you have been assigned. In rehearsals, for those players prone to waffling, it would be strategic to assign them smaller numbers, with larger numbers going to those who may be more reluctant speakers. While it is certainly part of the fun for players to have to stop sentences mid-flow as they have reached their word limit, players should aim to complete their thoughts in the allotted time. Focus should be given to making the most of each word within the context of the scene.
Traps and Tips
1.) Model the dynamic for the audience. In performance, after numbers have been assigned, I’ll usually have team members then re-order from largest to smallest number. In this new arrangement they then introduce themselves to the audience with the appropriate number of words. So in the above example Player B (letter “U”) would go first and might say, “Hello everyone and welcome to our show, my name is Shannon and for this scene I speak in twenty-one word sentences.” Player C (letter “A”) would be the last to introduce themselves and might just say “Hi.” Keep the introduction tight as you don’t want to spoil the fun that is to follow.
2.) Sure, count on your fingers. Especially if you’ve been given a larger number, players will typically keep track of their progress on their fingers. I actually think this is part of the charm of the game as it allows the audience to watch you strive to hit your target number. Be careful of just speaking quickly and approximating your word count as some in the audience will invariably catch your out. It can also be a common trap to start to count syllables rather than words, so be on the lookout for this too!
3.) Be strategic with entrances and character combinations. If you have a huge number (“U” as 21 in the above example), this player can make for a highly successful late or climactic entrance which takes the game to a new level. I find it helpful to start with a combination that doesn’t initially feature the outlying numbers, or only one of them, if the alphabet spread allows. There is also a contract with the audience that every player assigned a number/letter will appear and speak at least briefly in the scene, so be aware if a team mate has been waiting patiently in the wing if the scene is drawing to a close.
4.) Beware of interruptions. As each player has a specific word target, you need to be extremely careful not to interrupt each other before any particular speech act is finished or the dynamic will quickly become wonky. This serves as an additional lesson from the game in that you need to end your sentences clearly and exert patience if you have a great idea brewing but are not the current speaker. It’s also key to the game dynamic not to provide more than one sentence in a row: so if you’ve been giving “A” or 1-word sentences, saying “Hi,” “I’m,” “Stephen,” isn’t really embracing the spirit and challenge of the game. There are always earned exceptions discovered in the moment, but don’t start with this approach as your norm.
5.) Remember to be a human. When improvisers first play this game there can be a tendency to become a little robotic in your speech as you try to count each sentence on your fingers as you go. As you become more confident and proficient it adds a whole new layer to the exercise if you really commit emotionally to your sentences. I appreciate it when players attack their lines in such a way that they might accidentally run out of words right when they need them: this takes the risk and abandon to a whole new level!
This is a short-form game that still amuses me decades after I first encountered it as the potentially endless variety of number combinations radically changes any one specific scenic performance. If you inclined towards waffling, taking on the smaller numbers can be a really powerful reminder of how much you can do with only a few words at your disposal, and the central dynamic of the game that requires speakers to change with great frequency can also encourage sharing the work around the team. If this game isn’t in your short-form rotation, it’s certainly worth a look.
Connected Concept: Commandment #6