Game Library: “Emotions”

I know a lot of Emotional Rollercoaster variants and this entry is of that ilk. I’ve found the way this version provides dual callers offers up a helpful mechanism to maximize the gift of the changing emotions while minimizing the risk of unfocused chaos that can often quickly ensue when you have four characters all trying to justify switches at the same time. Emotions was a standard when I played with the ensemble at Walt Disney World’s now sadly-defunct Comedy Warehouse.

The Basics

I prefer this game in a team of four with two onstage characters each paired with an offstage emotional caller. A list of suitably varied emotions can be gathered from the audience prior to the scene (possibly with the other actors out of earshot although this doesn’t have the same payoff as other games with more of an endowment frame). Alternatively, callers can also just use a preset list or their imaginations although the audience certainly enjoys seeing their “spoilers” hitting the stage. A typical initiating ask-for such as a relationship or location is then obtained and the scene begins. Characters begin “neutrally” but must then assume and justify the random emotions as they are provided by their offstage companion.


Player A and B serve as the onstage characters with C and D serving as their respective offstage emotion callers. The prompt provided is a job interview at a warehouse.

Player A: “Thank you so much for joining me here on the warehouse floor for the final portion of your interview.”

Player B: “No worries at all, Kalin – if it’s okay that I can you by your first name.”

Player C: (as A’s partner) “Player A: Embarrassment. Embarrassment.”

Player A: (Looking around) “I’d actually prefer that you didn’t. People might make assumptions if they know you’re a member of the boss’ family.”

Player B: “I totally understand. It won’t happen again.”

Player A: “Shall we look at the newly-installed storage system. Although I image that you’ve heard about it at home…”

Player D: (as B’s partner) “Player B: Arrogant. Arrogant.”

Player B: “I’m very familiar with the specifications actually. Although I’ve heard you’ve been struggling with some basic operations… Kalin.”

Player A: “I had hoped that wasn’t common knowledge…”

Player C: (as A’s partner) “Joyful. Joyful.”

Player A: (with a sudden smile) “…but who knows if I’ll even be here in a few more weeks!”

The Focus

In addition to encouraging players to assume and explore a deeper variety of emotions alongside obvious justification challenges, this game also demands that characters are changed by the various emotional overlays. If this is not a personal or company strength, or you struggle with a bulletproof stance as a player, Emotions offers a helpful short-form tool. While it is typically played with lighter hues more likely to elicit audience laughter, the game is delightfully resilient and can work surprisingly well with more sincere or dramatic scenarios as well. I also appreciate that these scenes typically only involve two characters so it’s incumbent upon the team to really invest in the initial relationship as this should ultimately prove to be the focus of the scenic journey.

Traps and Tips

1.) Don’t underestimate the contribution and importance of the callers. While the characters are undeniably likely to receive more of the “glory” of the scene, much of this success is typically made possible and elevated by effective and generous calling. Many of the tips I’ve included in my earlier Genre Rollercoaster post you can find here remain true in this context, although the dual caller structure offers some new potentials and pitfalls. When establishing the game, I find it helpful for callers to initially name their onstage scene partner before offering the emotional shift. Above I’ve just used Player A and Player B as stand-ins, but ideally for clarity this should be the character’s name (Kalin) or role (applicant), or perhaps the actor’s name if these are used throughout the performance and the character’s name has not yet been established. Rather than pausing the action with a “Freeze” I prefer the device of repeating the emotion twice so that the audience and players are less likely to miss the adjustment. Generally, calls work well if they alternate somewhat predictably between the two callers so that there is time to consider what will provide the most effective or stark contrast (both with the character’s prior emotional state and their scene partner’s current climate). I also like to stage the callers on opposite sides of the stage when you can to facilitate a better view of the stage and characters. If you decide to just call emotions on the fly without audience suggestions or a list I find it a helpful little cheat to start somewhere in the alphabet and then just move your way through it for inspiration, not fretting if you skip over a letter or two on the way: “Love-struck… Mad… Optimistic… Perturbed…”

2.) Don’t forget to leave room for each other. If this is a new technique or you’re accustomed to single caller versions it can take a little practice to become comfortable with the rhythm of offstage calls and onstage justifications. A rookie trap is getting caught in a loop with your caller that excludes your scene partner; that is, the character gets a new emotion and they incorporate it only to be fed a new emotion which they then feel obliged to immediately use as well… The onstage characters can help a lot in this regard by offering clear pauses or moments in the scene where a new emotion might helpfully land. Similarly, if callers provide a new energy for their onstage character immediately following a line of dialogue from the other character, then their partner will be more likely to be in focus for the shift. As modeled above, it can also be effective to offer emotional changes within a character’s line, although you’ll want to have a strong connection in these moments so as to avoid talking over each other. Once the team has hopefully found a groove with the give and take it is nice to become a little less predictable with the call placements just to keep everyone, including the audience, on their toes.

3.) Don’t disarm the caller’s choices. There are several unhelpful ways that minimize the risk of the new emotions which can tend to sneak into the scene if the players aren’t grounded or are feeling overly anxious. It is generally less successful and dynamic to slowly make your way towards the newly offered emotion. A sharp and immediate shift raises the risk and requires the justification to emerge in real time which is inherently more dangerous and exciting for the audience and players alike. Relying solely on your words is a related trap as there can be a great deal of dynamism gained from a clearly executed but largely silent emotional response and journey (especially if you are offered a new emotion while your partner still clearly needs to finish their sentence). I’d also caution against characters naming or referencing their emotional states in their dialogue within the scene rather than fully embracing and playing them. This is good advice for all improv scenes in a showing not telling kind of way, but in Emotions, it can feel particularly wimpy to just hear a character suddenly announce “I’m joyful all of a sudden…” This gimmick ranks very highly on my list of short-form pet peeves!

4.) Don’t rely on old games in lieu of recognizing emerging ones. Again, this is great advice for pretty much every scene and particularly those that have such a strong framing handle as Emotions. It’s tempting to do “that thing” that worked so well last time, but this will invariably bear less delicious fruit than patiently watering choices that emerge spontaneously in the action. Characters may end up exploring similar or identical emotion calls, dynamic emotions may become recycled or shared, one character might experience calls at a quicker pace than their teammate, or a character might be challenged to explore subtle emotional variations that are almost synonyms. These, and so many other games, can provide delightful additions, but they rarely work well when they are needlessly imposed. Ideally, the callers are enabling cogent characterizations and deepening the featured relationship through carefully executed offers based on close observation of the scene’s needs and underlying potential. It’s important to give the top of the scene some true room to breathe for this reason so that this is a strong balance or foundation. Once this has been firmly established playful shivving from the callers when it’s deemed appropriate is more likely to add to the fun and less likely to puncture the scenic momentum.

In Performance

A common misstep with Emotions is over-calling especially as the scene leaves the starting gates. I enjoy this game less as a player (and from the audience frankly) when it feels like the character only gets one quick crack at each emotion before it changes. Calling in this manner also decreases exponentially the likelihood that players will be able to mine any nuance or connection from the provided state of being. This fast style of play certainly elicits a particular energized result, and may aid in the construction of a dynamic climax, but don’t overlook the value of a more generously patient approach. If you’re working on removing your improv armor a more luxurious pace will also encourage meaningful changes in your character and relationship.

Cheers, David Charles.
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Bulletproof

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: