This is a continuation of 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.
This entry is partnered with the concept of wimping as discussed in the eighth commandment. I often use this exercise as the culmination of my nuts and bolts of improv introductory class, when time permits: it’s called “Ad Campaign”.
Players work in small groups of 4 to 6 players (ideally) and form a semi-circle in the performance area. I’ll often use chairs, especially if I’m working with novice improvisers, but this could certainly be played with everyone standing. A nonsensical or “impossible” product is provided, such as Instant Ribeye Steaks or Silent Party Noise Makers, and the team must work together to brainstorm an advertising campaign. All offers provided should be robustly and immediately accepted by the group with a loud chorus of “yes”!
The group is provided with “Silent Party Noise Makers.”
Player A: (assuming the stature of the boss) “I’m glad I have our ‘A’ team here to pitch ideas about this exciting new product, Silent Party Noise Makers. It strikes me as the perfect product for people living in tiny apartment complexes…”
All: (enthusiastically) “Yes!”
Player B: “Don’t let noise ordinances stop you from having the party you deserve!”
All: (enthusiastically) “Yes! I love that…”
Player C: “That can be the slogan on the box! Beside an image of a grouchy old man sleeping while a huge party is happening next door…”
All: (enthusiastically) “Yes! Brilliant…!”
This exercise is intended as an antidote to wimping or halfhearted acceptance of others’ offers. As each idea hits the stage, it’s critical to encourage the group to give unconditional and enthusiastic support. It is easy for this dynamic to wane as the exercise unfolds if it is not clearly and consistently encouraged. The ideas are likely to become increasingly absurd (although not necessarily so), but each idea must be met with growing joy until the ad campaign reaches a successful and energized conclusion.
Traps and Tips
1.) Brainstorm ad campaign elements. It’s probable that many of the group may have little experience constructing or guiding an ad campaign, so I find it helpful to collectively brainstorm together the kinds of elements that might need to be resolved prior to the first performance of the exercise. Consider elements such as the target demographics, slogans, product name, spokespeople, packaging, price point, ways to reach your audience, bargains or incentives, cross promotion opportunities and the like. There is no expectation that any one campaign will hit all of these points, but it can help the group to have some strategies in their pocket in the event that the energy stalls.
2.) Rehearse the enthusiastic “yes” chorus. No seriously, this is a good idea. Invariably, groups take a while to warm to this concept, so it’s helpful to model it beforehand, and it’s likely that you might need to side-coach players to fully commit to this element as the game unfolds. This excited acceptance of every offer is the focus of the game (the content is nearly irrelevant in many ways) so don’t allow a wimping energy to emerge or go unchecked.
3.) Be wary of questions. I’ve written about questions in improv here and while questions can work in our scenes, they tend to grind the brainstorming session to a halt when they appear in this particular game. If someone does pitch a question rather than an offer (and it will likely happen) encourage the speaker to immediately answer their own question with the first thing that comes to mind. It can be tempting as the facilitator or sidecoach to throw in a question or two if the campaign is lagging, but this can have a similar stumping effect, so perhaps offer more broad encouragement instead: “I love where this is going!” or “We need the next piece of the puzzle…”
4.) Watch out for “ors” and “buts” especially if they’re disguised as “ands”. It can be tempting in this frame to shop for the best idea rather than fully embracing and polishing the current idea: with absurd products this is truly a fool’s errand as how could there possibly be best ideas? This tendency typically emerges with players offering alternatives or additions that actually negate or eclipse the prior choice. If someone offers that Beyonce should be the product spokeswoman, and then another player offers “and Maroon 5″, they’re generally knocking the prior idea off the table rather than elevating it.
5.) Encourage full involvement and group awareness. As in my little example above, one or two players may emerge as high status contributors or facilitators (which is fine) but make sure there is an awareness that everyone should have an opportunity to add to the campaign plan. Initially, this involvement can be providing full support in the chorus of “yes” that follows each shared idea, but it’s also nice to introduce the concept of sharing focus and the limelight. Often, players who take seats at the edge of the group can struggle to have their voices heard a little more than those in the middle of the action, or if someone assumes a “boss” stance they can end up dominating rather than empowering. Those who incline towards introversion may also need extra encouragement or room for their idea to be able to breathe.
I would certainly watch a dynamic such as this in performance as it has a great build and game at its core, but I think the major gift of this exercise is more of a metaphor than a specific strategy. Players will often experience that the risk of offering something new to the mix feels drastically reduced when they are playing in an environment in which they know their idea will be met with such immediate and unbridled enthusiasm. Whether or not the final campaign yields creative fruit, teams will generally feel accomplished and successful if this dynamic of acceptance has been joyfully conjured. When we wimp as improvisers, we are robbing our partners and ourselves of this intoxicating environment.
Connected Concept: Commandment #8