Exploring the concept of Ambiguity can certainly provide challenges, but this particular game quickly jumped to mind. There are several performance games that riff on this general theme of voicing character thoughts, but this version of the short-form game Conscience allows for some dynamic interplay in terms of enriching our dialogue..
This game works most efficiently in teams of four with players working in pairs. Two players (A and B) perform as the characters in the scene, while C and D serve as their respective consciences. An ask-for is elicited (a relationship works well). Throughout the scene, each line of dialogue (often a little dry or ambiguous) is followed by the offstage partner speaking the deeper conscience’s truth or subtext. This pattern continues until the scenes reaches a natural conclusion.
The ask-for of “separated lovers” is provided.
Player B is already sitting in the waiting room as Player A enters, taking a moment to assess the situation before timidly stepping forward.
Player A: “Sorry I’m late.”
Player C: (as A’s Conscience) “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to keep it together.”
Player B gently turns, moving over ever-so-slightly to make room on the waiting room couch.
Player B: “I was early.”
Player D: (as B’s Conscience) “Did you have to wear my favorite sweater?”
Player A: (gesturing toward the couch) “Do you mind?”
Player C: (as A’s Conscience) “I miss sitting close to you…”
As is the case with most improv games, there are many different ways to maximize the potential of this dynamic. In terms of exploring ambiguity, I think it’s helpful for partners to work closely together: characters and consciences should earnestly endeavor to honor each others’ nuances and intent. (In performance, there certainly can be a value in being a little playfully unpredictable and mischievous.) Deliberately sparse dialogue can add to the challenge and dynamism of the game, while also leaving more room for the conscience voices to play and translate the action as they perceive it.
Traps and Tips
1.) The rhythm of the scene can take a moment to establish. As each line of dialogue is necessarily followed by a matching statement from the conscience player it’s important that this pattern is closely adhered to, especially during the opening stages of the scene so as to model the dynamic. It’s helpful for the first few beats to include a little more air between them than might typically be preferred. Characters need to be careful not to quickly provide dialogue after each other or to get in a loop with their conscience in a way that shuts the other player out. Similarly, those voicing the consciences should strive to leap into the fray quickly after their corresponding character speaks as too much dead air will likely stall the progression of the scene. If you know the short-form game Stage Directions (alternatively They Said/They Said), the mechanics are very similar.
2.) Listening makes or breaks the scene. Active listening is needed all around. Consciences should look closely for any hidden intentions (consciously or unconsciously provided) and endeavor to weave these into their subtextual statements. Characters need to fully embrace anything that their assigned conscience offers while retaining subtlety and nuance. It’s also critical that while improvisers need to hear everything that is said onstage – namely all dialogue and conscience thoughts – characters should only hear what is spoken at the textual level. It is a trap of the game to over-eagerly exploit what has occurred at the conscience level rather than allowing tensions and games to gradually build while remaining under the surface as long as is helpful.
3.) Consider staging. If you’re in a proscenium configuration or similar, I find it helpful to bring the two players serving as consciences downstage with each initially positioned diagonally across from their partner. This maximizes the likelihood that details provided by the characters can be clearly seen and interpreted by their teammates. When the consciences speak, it’s important to angle in such a way that both the performers and audience can discern your choices clearly. Obviously the characters are likely (hopefully) to move all around the stage, but they should maintain an awareness of where their assigned conscience is perched so as to keep the lines of communication as unobstructed as possible.
4.) Explore a range of conscience angles and energies. It may just be my experience, but it often seems more accessible to make the attitude of the conscience snarky or sarcastic. This is certainly a viable option, but make sure that it doesn’t become a default or the game will start to produce scenes of a very similar and aggressive hue. Opposites can be a lovely choice, both in terms of finding contrast between the character and their inner thoughts, but also in terms of each conscience in relation to its counterpart. In the above example, I was riffing on a potential divorce meeting. Placing some love in the subtext can make us care more about the characters and scene rather than just descending to arguments or name calling. In general, I think this game is a great way to bring more love and connection to our characters and scene work overall.
5.) Don’t feel the need to explode the dynamic. There are so many ways these scenes can unfold in terms of the central text/subtext dynamic. It is possible (and highly effective) for the subtext never to be revealed or raised to the level of text for the entire scene. Our separated couple might have deep-seated feelings for each other, but neither feels able to share these aloud and so the divorce proceedings just limp forward without interruption. Or the conscience voices can prod their character counterparts into action or change, or get them into trouble. Player A might confess their lingering feelings only to be rejected once more. Or one or both conscience voices might have a change of mind or perspective, remembering once more the thousand little things that pushed the couple apart. Or so many other possibilities. In learning the dynamics and rhythms of the game, be careful of limiting the scope or constraining the potentials for discovery as this double-barreled way of storytelling can really open up great new levels and energies.
This format is wonderfully versatile and can house a wide range of styles and stories: from raucous comedies of misunderstanding, to more gentle dissections of a relationship that are reminiscent of psycho-drama or Playback Theatre. There are different gifts when performing as the characters than there are in the conscience positions, so shuffle players into both roles if and when you can, but both positions certainly enable a complex and rewarding exploration of ambiguity, text and subtext.
Connected Concept: Ambiguity