This is my next entry in the 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.
The seventh commandment explores the concept of “breaking the routine” and this is a great series of exercises that models ways to do just that called “CAD Bell”. If you’re unfamiliar with the acronym, it stands for Confession, Accusation, and Discovery.
This is a concept that you can easily apply to a lot of other scenic structures or formats, but I like to introduce the dynamics in a series of paired scenes (typically everyone playing at once). A relationship or premise is given, players are invited to begin their scenes, and when the facilitator rings a bell, the next “obvious” player should incorporate the dynamic listed below. It’s typically helpful to then repeat that version of the game with the second player now taking on the position of incorporating the predetermined CAD. Depending on the group dynamics and size, I might then shuffle the pairings. There is so much to glean from these exchanges that you could easily explore these dynamics for a whole workshop or more.
Phase One – Confession: When the bell rings, the next player provides a personal confession that builds on the scene already established. A confession, by definition, is something that places culpability on the speaker. It may be positive, “I’ve always been in love with you,” negative, “I lied about liking baseball,” or perhaps even seemingly trivial, “I’ve been hoarding old newspapers.” The scene continues, with the status quo being tilted by this new information.
Phase Two – Accusation: Upon the signal of the bell, the next player provides an accusation that is informed by the prior choices of the scene. In this instance, the accusation places the heat or culpability on the scene partner who should accept the ramifications of the choice as opposed to pitching an accusation of their own. For example, if the accusation is “I saw you eat that last chocolate chip cookie from the jar,” it’s more helpful to respond, “I know, I just couldn’t stay on this diet one moment longer” which takes on the guilt of the choice, as opposed to “I only ate that last cookie cause you ate all the rest,” which pushes the blame or vulnerability onto your partner.
Phase Three – Discovery: In this iteration the bell invites the next speaker to break the routine by making a physical discovery in the space or environment. If you have not created an environment prior to the bell, this challenge can be particularly difficult so the focus has the added benefit of encouraging action and interesting staging. Discoveries can include finding unexpected items or props, “What is my favorite shirt doing in your closet?” endowing qualities on pre-established elements, “All the money is missing from our piggy bank,” or adding specifics to the greater environment, “Don’t look now, but I think someone is spying on us from behind the hedge…”
Phase Four – Free-form CAD: This optional final phase essentially combines all three options above with players providing either a confession, accusation, or discovery when the bell chimes. Players can be encouraged to allow their selection to emerge organically based on the scenic flow and needs, or can pre-select the technique that they feel they need to work on the most.
This is a particularly helpful series of exercises for exploring the concept of breaking the routine, upsetting the balance, or igniting the action of a scene that might be stuck in stasis. To this end, it’s important that CAD moments are imbued with import and not merely treated as just another choice in a sea of choices. Theoretically, almost any offer that occurs at this belled moment, whether or not it innately held deep promise, can serve as this breaking point if the players make it significant.
Traps and Tips
1.) Gut check. It’s integral in this exercise for the player receiving the new information to take a real moment to gut check and process the significance of what has just been shared. This pause in the action in and of itself often marks this featured choice as being of particular import, and it increases the likelihood that the CAD will truly influence the next steps of the action. Also avoid the trap of dispassionately justifying the new information (and thereby defusing it) rather than heightening your emotional response.
2.) Embrace change. The routine can’t truly be broken if no-one is changed by the arrival of new information. While we do not want to throw out the details or nuances of what has already been established in the scene, the CAD moment is an invitation to adjust the tone, texture, or energy of the central relationship. Without embracing change, the CAD bell hasn’t been fully exploited.
3.) Adjust the timing. If you are facilitating the exercise, avoid becoming too predictable with your bell timing. It is certainly helpful to give the players sufficient time to create a rich world and relationship, but placing the bell cue near the beginning or the end of a vignette opens up other dramatic gifts and story possibilities. Once the skill set has been introduced, players will also start to feel when a disruption or tilt is needed which is of value in and of itself. You can also use the bell more than once in a scene, although I’d caution that scenes that contain too many CADs don’t tend to fully unwrap the value of any of them.
4.) Encourage inherent CADs. While “Martians are landing” is certainly a powerful discovery likely to shift a scene’s direction, it is unlikely an inherent next step in most cases. As players become accustomed to the mechanics of the game, encourage looking for inherent CADs that fully utilize and reflect choices already in the mix of the scene. There is a true power and joy in naming something just at the right moment that might have been very quietly brewing under the surface of the dialogue and action.
Confessions, accusations and discoveries are a great way to add dynamism to pretty much any style of play. I’ve found student improvisers often have an innate preference of the three, so there is definitely value in building up your strength in the areas that do not come as readily. Not all scenes require a CAD in order to soar, but once you’ve become accustomed to this technique, you start to realize just how omnipresent they are, and for good reason!
Connected Concept: Commandment #7