This is one of my favorite short-form games in my on-campus repertoire, in part as it allows me to play a little more directly with my student improvisers as the caller. Options is a fun format that requires ongoing interaction with the audience, and so it snugs nicely with the concept of the week, Ask-Fors.
A initial prompt is obtained and players start to improvise a conventional scene. As the action unfolds, a caller (typically the host or another player) pauses the improvisers and elicits new information from audience members that informs the next scenic step. Several such interruptions occur at strategic intervals for the remainder of the scene.
Players receive “apartment hunting” as the inspiring choice.
Player A and B enter by cautiously opening the door and stepping inside the empty apartment. They take a moment to look around and assess the space. Neither seems particularly impressed, but they try to put on a brave face.
Player A: “I can see some real potential here. It’s not too far from your work.”
Player B: (nodding but halfheartedly) “Yeah. And that walk up the four flights wasn’t as bad as I thought…”
They both look behind them.
Player A: “I thought the real estate agent was right behind us, Roberto.”
Player B: “Well, it gives us a moment to have a good look around.”
The Caller announces “Freeze” and gestures to a particular audience member asking: “Roberto sees something unexpected in the room. What is it?” After a moment, the audience member answers “a dead rat,” and the Caller repeats it for the players.
Player B: (trying to hide the rising disgust) “Is that what I think it is in the corner?”
Player A: “Oh, it’s a big city – we’ve seen rats everywhere else we’ve looked as well. At least this one is dead..!”
Much of the fun and work of this game resides in the domain of justifying as players need to immediately and unreservedly take on and utilize whatever randomness the audience might provide. From the caller’s perspective, there is also the challenge of facilitating quick and helpful ideas from the audience while reading what might benefit the scene or add an interesting new ingredient.
Traps and Tips
1.) Give due attention to the role of the caller. If it’s possible, get into the auditorium when serving as the caller: a cordless hand-held microphone can be helpful too if you’re in a larger space and one is available. While I’m moving through the house I strive to pre-select my next audience member, looking for someone who is clearly engaged and likely to play along. When I’m able, I’ll make eye contact with them as soon as I can so they know that I’ll be coming to them shortly. As modeled in the example, more pointed questions tend to elicit more interesting suggestions. It’s also more dynamic if you have a good variety of prompts: “What object do they pull out of their pocket,” “How do they know the person who just walked through the door,” “They have a large emotional reaction – what is it?” Be sure to clearly repeat the final answers so that the audience and company are all in the know. If possible, endeavor to get to different sections of the house as well rather than just going to one little audience cluster. With smaller houses I’ve had some success with asking the question and then asking for a raised hand to give me an answer, but this can be needlessly clumsy in bigger spaces.
2.) Use the audience suggestions as quickly and fully as you can. There can be a temptation to disarm the randomness of a new choice by justifying it prior to letting it appear in the scene. This can be a helpful approach used sparingly, but I strongly prefer just getting the idea out there and then letting the audience enjoy you squirm a little as you figure it out. Don’t under-estimate the performance value of this palpable moment of panic or uncertainty. It’s also much more rewarding if anything elicited from the audience becomes unequivocally central to the resulting action rather than merely a brief mention or throwaway. This format has a very “Choose Your Own Adventure” feel to it that should be fully embraced.
3.) Pace you entrances. The stop and start nature of the game can make the scene falter a little in terms of rhythm especially if the scene is crowded. As a caller, it’s nice to try to share the challenge of the game by pitching different options to different characters, and it’s more difficult to facilitate this if you (and possibly the audience) are faced with a cluttered stage picture with only loosely defined characters and relationships. Entrances provide strong potentials for the next piece of information, so keep this in mind too, and try to help the caller out by avoiding run-on sentences or talking over each other.
4.) The scene freezes can add to the dynamism. I’m not always a big fan of freezing scenes, but it’s largely unavoidable in this particular case as you need strong focus when you’re wrangling each new audience suggestion. To reduce the resulting faltering energy it can be helpful for the onstage improvisers to assume “soft freezes” rather than becoming statues. If you’re unfamiliar with the distinction, it means that while dialogue pauses while the caller is engaging with the audience, gentle activity can continue. For example, our two potential renters could continue to quietly examine the room. You just want to avoid making any huge discoveries during these soft freeze moments: in many ways, this is the responsibility of the next audience-elicited choice. Generally, I’d also caution the onstage players against making anything that might read as a negative reaction to the audience’s suggestions as this can dissuade others from feeling safe to contribute. If a suggestion is truly odd, icky or inappropriate, the caller should feel free to reject or modify it.
In addition to flexing your audience and ask-for skills, this game is a wonderful example of rolling with the punches in our scenic work. The audience interruptions will invariably open unanticipated doors (while also sometimes offering up the most perfect connections and solutions). Jumping into these choices with joy and fearlessness is a great remedy for over-planning if you tend to live in your head a little as a player.
Connected Concept: Ask-For