As I noted in my previous entry here discussing the opera-improv-script hybrid that is (Your) Opera in a Trunk, this format was primarily designed with the assumption that the company might have rather sparse improv experience as they began the rehearsal process. For this reason, early rehearsals covered the greatest hits of improv, introducing core concepts such as accepting, wimping and endowments. By design, the show was a small cast of characters embodied by the soprano, tenor, mezzo and bass respectively, with the high voices typically assuming the more heroic or virtuous roles and the lower voices taking on the function of confidant(e)s and villains, very much in keeping with classical archetypal tropes inherent in much of the genre. Subsequently, the improv portions of the show were very relationship based, and the casting of dynamic characters was key to the arc and success of the performance. Each time a new character emerged, the audience was given the opportunity to vote from three cast-provided options, and so it was important to strengthen the skill of providing suitable archetype and relationship possibilities.
A game called Justify Circle was helpful in this regard, offering an embodied exercise to explore how characters might connect in ways that complicate, enrich and add playfulness to the unfolding world of the opera.
Here’s a peek inside at how the exercise works:
Players form a circle. One player volunteers to step into the middle of the group and assumes a dynamic (but frozen) pose suggestive of a character, activity or energy. Once this image has been formed, any other player from the circle can enter and, using their own body, assume a related pose that “makes sense” of the first image, providing context, relationship or added detail. Once this companion pose has been established, the first player says “Thank you” and returns to the edge of the circle. The group is now left with a new incomplete image that inspires another player to enter and physically justify the remaining pose in a different way.
As the title of the exercise suggests, this game explores the concept of justification: providing a context, frame or rationale for an incomplete or nascent choice. It’s important to stress that this justification need only make sense to the entering player, although they should strive to communicate the intent or inspiration behind their choice as clearly as possible. There is a joy in the abandon and freedom the exercise can unlock.
Within the context of (Your) Opera I typically also stress the difference between parallel choices (those that essentially mirror the idea of your scene partner) and complementary choices (those that offer a cause-and-effect dynamic, or a more complex relationship or power dynamic). In this game, parallel choices tend to collapse in on themselves after a while as they limit the emergence of new ideas, while complementary choices tend to open up new, perhaps unexpected, directions and possibilities. With only four characters to cast in this particular format, it was particularly critical to train an eye for the latter. I write about this at greater length in my consideration of the seventh commandment of Theatresports which you can find here.
The first player enters the circle and assumes a pose crouching on the ground with their hands covering their head.
A second player enters, and mimes lovingly placing a shawl or covering over the first player who they have viewed as a child in need of comfort. The image sits for a moment, and then the first player says “Thank you” and returns to the edge of the group.
A third player enters and assumes the stance of a charging bull with a ferocious look in their eye. The caring gesture is now re-framed as a cowering bullfighter who is about to be attacked. After a moment, the second player says “Thank you” and moves aside…
Traps and Tips
1.) Encourage momentum. This exercise promotes bravery and trusting your first instinct, so encourage players to leap before they look. If using random entrances doesn’t accommodate full participation (especially if you have a larger group) you can move around the circle in order, or split the group up and play it in smaller circles or even pairs. The two-person variant of this exercise is extremely bracing and dynamic as there’s nowhere to hide as you immediately have to return to craft a new tableaux once you have left! Once a group is familiar with the conceit, playing in pairs is a great way to raise the stakes.
2.) Note parallel chains if they emerge. I’ll often use this game to introduce the concepts of parallel and complementary action, and I think it’s helpful to at least acknowledge if the ensemble is falling into a pattern of mirroring the prior choice rather than justifying it with a new frame or energy. There are exceptions to all improv rules, but I’ll often use the phrase “what does this character need in their world” to try to unlock potentials. There are certainly times when this “need” might in fact be a parallel – a boxer generally needs another boxer – but in most instances there are also interesting complements lurking as well – a boxer can also need a manager, a referee, an announcer, a coach, a worried parent, a fan, a doctor…
3.) Embrace the “Thank you”. I’ll often joke that the game teaches manners as well as improv, but the “Thank you” really does serve an important function. It provides a rhythm to the exercise and discourages players from jettisoning until they are confident the entering player has fully embodied their new offer. It also punctuates the beat between each completed tableau, and acknowledges that a gift has just been given (even if the leaving player doesn’t fully understand the specifics in the moment). If you play the two-person version, the “Thank you” is even more critical for maintaining the integrity of the sequence.
4.) Embrace the silence. As I note below, there are certainly ways to use this frame to jump start scenes or explore dialogue, but the foundational exercise is intended to encourage physical communication. Players can have a tendency to only halfheartedly commit to the poses especially if they can “explain” their choice rather than fully embody it. Similarly, look out for players performing an activity rather than committing to a static pose rich with emotion and dynamism. When the exercise is operating on all cylinders, tableaux should explore a wide variety of compelling stage pictures and levels.
Justify Circle is one of those lovely foundational exercises that is readily adapted to multiple contexts and needs. As the company members became more comfortable and proficient with making dynamic relationship choices, I’d add new elements to the basic game structure. We might use a tableau as the first moment of a scene and then allow it to continue for a few sung or spoken lines. As (Your) Opera involved company members providing character possibilities for audience votes (see the image above), we would also sometimes explore multiple complementary roles for a tableau: if our soprano is an ice cream parlor owner, then who might our tenor, mezzo and bass become to help populate this world with allies and obstacles? So much of the success of this format was directly attributable to the increasing playfulness with which the company would concoct whimsical character combinations and connections, and this exercise helped establish that creative mindset.
And that’s your peek inside the rehearsal process of (Your) Opera in a Trunk, my first successful “scripted” improv show that debuted at Pensacola Opera.