Game Library: “Environmental Freeze Tag”

Freeze Tag games are a mainstay of most short-form workshops and performances, and while they are certainly excellent warm-ups and skill building exercises you can get a little performer fatigue if you’re playing the same versions again and again. Environmental Freeze Tag is a quick-paced variation that I don’t see played nearly as often as its relatives, and it has the added advantage of modeling some of the central techniques of effective Canadian Crosses. If you struggle to create locations rich with details and potentials, this game will certainly help you in that regard too.

The Basics

One player will serve as a caller and elicit a list of contrasting environments. These options can be compiled prior to beginning the game or the caller can gather new suggestions during each transition. A first environment is offered and players, one-at-a-time, enter the performance space and start to create characters, objects or dynamics that can define this location. Players should think in terms of Canadian Crosses and physical choices as opposed to characters engaging in sustained dialogue. Improvisers can enter and exit at will and should strive to keep an interesting and balanced stage picture. Once we have seen a relatively full array of choices the caller announces “Freeze” and those who are currently onstage do just that. The caller may then streamline the image by releasing some players by saying their names which cues an exit. A new location is then offered which serves as the inspiration for the next round of choices. Those currently “frozen” should justify their current poses in this different context and are then joined by others in the wings to flesh out the new world. The process continues at the caller’s discretion through multiple contrasting locations.


“Circus” is offered as the first environment. After a blackout, players start to enter…

Player A: (assuming the role of a barker, walking across the stage) “Step up, step up, and experience the world’s largest hallway of mirrors? Will you find or lose yourself in the ever-changing corridors…?”

Player B and C enter. C offers B a handful of balls that they proceed to throw at an imaginary target in the hopes of winning a prize.

Player D enters and stands near B and C, assuming the stance of a large spinning prize wheel with their arms outstretched.

Player E enters and sits, looking scared, downstage right. They assume the stance of a lost child holding an over-sized stick of candy floss (cotton candy).

Player F stands to one side as an off-the-clock clown reaching for a cigarette. Player G enters after a few moments as a fellow performer.

Player G: (to Player F) “Can you believe these kids? I don’t know how much longer I can take this.”

Player H and I, holding hands, stroll across the stage as teenagers lost in each others’ company. They stop and look at various signs and attractions.

Player A, no longer a barker, has returned as a giraffe in a cage interacting with the crossing teenagers…

Caller: “Freeze.” (The players do so.) “Let’s have Player C, E, G and H leave the scene.” (The Caller elicits a new location and offers it back to the stage…) “Let’s move to a construction site…”

Those remaining on stage take turns justifying their old physicalities in new ways… perhaps A now becomes a crane, B assumes the role of a foreperson, F and I start carefully walking across a high beam…

The Focus

At its core this is a freeze tag game which means that the concept of justification is critical in its implementation. There are also give and take challenges due to the unavoidably cluttered nature of the vignettes which should be tended to judiciously. In addition to crafting rich and dynamic locations, players should endeavor to explore the full range of their physicality in order to enable stark and playful shifts and opportunities for recontextualization.

Traps and Tips

1.) Helpful caller strategies. Unlike many freeze games, the caller is an active and important contributor. Pace the new locations carefully: you want to give sufficient time for each location to be fully embodied and developed, but don’t want the attack to drop or the stage picture to lose dynamism and interest before announcing the “Freeze.” If the size of your ensemble allows aim to provide space for everyone to make at least a little gift before shifting gears as a general rule. When culling the stage picture between environments strive to keep the most challenging or interesting stage pictures in play. It can be fun to have one player in the hot seat for several shifts in a row especially if they’re in an unusual position and are doing well with each subsequent justification, but try to spread the wealth amongst the company as best you can: players can become disheartened if they are always sent to the side during the transitional moments. Keep an eye to sight lines — if an area of the stage has become cluttered these are good places to release some players before announcing the new impetus. Also seek contrast between locations. This goal can be assisted by your ask-for phrasing if you’re getting locations within the game. “That was an outdoor location, what’s an indoor place where you’ve worked?” “We were just in nature, what’s a location that is very modern or urban?”

2.) Helpful player strategies. It can be useful to approach this game as a brainstorming exercise as opposed to a scenic exploration. As each location is provided, consider what characters, animals, relationships, props or set pieces would likely be featured in this world. What are the unique facets of the location that make it quickly recognizable to an audience? These choices needn’t connect in a story sense, although it can be helpful to think about how they might relate spatially. In the circus example above, were the clowns in a “backstage area” as opposed to the carnival games and lost child who were in the circus grounds? Finding and maintaining a staging logic adds a new delightful level to the exploration. Don’t fall into the trap of having mini-scenes with nuanced dialogue exchanges. A line or two is fine, especially if it is establishing or justifying your presence, but once you’ve had your moment in focus it’s generally wise to assume softer focus while other elements come to the stage. If there is a lot happening and your choice is no longer needed or pertinent, don’t be afraid to take the exit so that there’s room for others to join. Canadian Crosses are extremely helpful in this format. As the location takes shape, also have an eye towards trends that you can address. If everyone is a character (which tends to happen when players are first introduced to the game) then it’s great to take on an inanimate aspect. As you scroll through multiple worlds, some very strategic callbacks or character reincorporations can prove highly successful, especially as the game approaches its conclusion, but don’t rush to this conceit or the environments may become poorly illustrated.

3.) Helpful “freeze” strategies. There is some helpful etiquette when it comes to the location transitions. It’s good form to prioritize those onstage when new locations are introduced so that they have strong focus as they justify their old position in a new way — hence the device of the caller cleaning up the image between these pivotal moments. The basic rules for other freeze games apply here: don’t fudge or release your pose as you make your new choice but rather mine the potentials of its smallest details; defer to players holding difficult positions so that they have right of way if they need it; and maintain an awareness of others in the space so that focus can be deliberately moved from one justification to the next. Offstage players should endeavor to allow sufficient time for all the captured players to unfreeze before re-joining the action. This prevents sudden clutter reforming, and also gives the frozen players a little right of way in terms of grabbing the most obvious scenic elements as part of their justifications. Obviously if the frozen players are clearly struggling in a non-joyful way an offstage player should certainly enter with a choice so as to buy others some time (or possibly pitch an endowment to a fellow player who is “stuck” both physically and creatively).

In Performance

While this game is clearly related to its other Freeze Tag kin and many of those games’ strategies will assist in its execution, the mechanics and scale of this iteration will feel decidedly different at least initially. The clutter is both the blessing and the curse of the game. You need players to enter (and exit) with abandon and create multi-faceted environments, but especially when it comes to the freeze transitions, players must display patience and great care with focus give and takes or else it can quickly become chaotic and largely unwatchable. The pacing of new entrances is critical in this regard and it’s particularly important for offstage players to remain present and focused so that they can clearly communicate to each other their intent to join the fray.

Cheers, David Charles.
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Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Canadian Cross

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.

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