This entry continues the series describing improv games, exercises or strategies that I’ve been thinking about lately. Today, I’m inspired by the ninth commandment that dissuades us from being needlessly clever on stage which has reminded me of an exercise I know as Passion Statements.
Players mull through the rehearsal space at a reasonable pace keeping equidistant from each other as best they can. One at a time, players announce “Me” at which point the group pauses and forms an audience by merely adjusting their stances so that the speaking player is in focus. When this focus has been achieved, the self-nominated player provides a brief monologue or speech about a topic or cause that fills them with passion. Once the brief speech has concluded, the players begin to mull once more until a new speaker self nominates.
This seemingly simple exercise can actually make players feel quite vulnerable and nervous. Reiterate that the goal is to connect to something that is truthful and personally inspiring or emotional. Humor may certainly emerge organically, but avoid a one-upping environment with everyone seeking the most clever, peculiar or unexpected angle.
Traps and Tips
1.) Allow sufficient time for full involvement. Some players who usually exert confidence and attack may find this exercise challenging, especially if they are unaccustomed to taking the risk of sharing personal information on stage. There can be a fine line between encouraging and coercing participation (the latter, obviously, should be avoided), but provide a tone and pace that gives everyone room to contribute. I might sidecoach just with a simple “Has everyone had an opportunity to share?” as the exercise is nearing its conclusion. Similarly, be careful of players offering multiple narratives. It can be helpful to allow some wiggle room in case a participant who went early in the mix has a deeper understanding of the intent later in the game and wants a second crack, or someone feels deeply inspired by previous content or vulnerability.
2.) Avoid commenting on or judging contributions. If my experience with this exercise is typical, you will likely get a wide array of statements, from the simple or whimsical, to the more profound or revealing. All statements should be honored and listened to without interruption or commentary. (If something problematic or offensive emerges, I’d encourage to address this in the postmortem.) Model focused listening during the first few rounds. When I facilitate this exercise, I will tend to play and share as well so as not to stand as an outsider. This also gives an opportunity to model sincere material if the group is struggling to get beyond the obvious or trivial, “I hate bad traffic…”
3.) Establish parameters. I use the term “passion” deliberately as it denotes something of emotional weight or import. The exercise can become a series of rants which is not in and of itself a complete departure from the exercise’s intent, but passion can include a much wider array of emotions than just frustration and annoyance. It can be helpful to reiterate this central question, “What are you passionate about?” as the mulling takes place. There are also likely to be honest moments of humor and laughter which is an important reminder that comedy need not be insincere nor disconnected from our personal truths.
4.) Take a moment to debrief. I’ve used this exercise a lot on college campuses and I’ve found that these communities often struggle to announce their passions unapologetically in front of their peers (and probably their teacher too, I imagine). You might have a different experience when using this in other groups or demographics, but I’ve found the debrief can often be as important as the exercise itself. Did participants immediately have passionate subjects at their disposal or did they have to search? Were there other influences at play that put players in their heads or made them “sort” or edit their choices? How did it feel to be vulnerable in front of the group? If there were problematic moments or opportunities to elevate marginalized voices, you can also use this time to engage in these important dialogues.
An effective second step with this exercise can be to jump into scenes inspired or informed by the various passionate sentiments, but don’t underrate the value of the sharing in and of itself. The exercise can serve as a helpful and effective reminder that we need not look further than ourselves to generate rich, interesting and dynamic material on the stage. This certainly involves taking a risk by revealing some of our own truths and peccadilloes, but the rewards are manifold and immediate: from building a deeper sense of trust in your ensemble, to forging new connections as players discover similarities and contrasts, to opening up new ways to use our stages to reflect the beautiful complexities and contradictions of the human experience.