Most of the status games in my stock derive one way or another from Keith Johnstone’s critical work and writings on the topic, and Status Swap is certainly no exception. As we seek Change and dynamism in our scene work, this type of exercise can provide a helpful and motivating template. You can easily adapt the central conceit to explore other forms of “swaps” such as emotions, animal essences or physicalities.
Generally played in pairs (perhaps with some additional players on standby to support as needed), one player is assigned as the “high status” character in the scene (holding the most “power” or sway), while the other assumes the role of the “low status” character (holding little such social capital). By the conclusion of the scene players must have facilitated an exchange in the status configuration so that now the high status character holds the lower status and vice versa.
Player A has assumed the role of a high-powered CEO and “high status” while Player B is the new company intern and “low status”. It is apparently company policy for the CEO to meet all new hires and so Player A has been joined in their impressive office by a seemingly anxious Player B…
Player A: (pointing out the window) “…and that new wing should be completed in just a few more weeks.”
Player B: “You’ve really created an astounding company here.”
Player A: “But just twenty years ago, I was in a similar position as you right now…”
Player B: “Oh, I don’t think I could ever accomplish anything quite like this.”
Player A: “Software development is an ever-evolving field. You never know where the next million – or billion – dollar idea might come from.”
Player B: “You’ve certainly made the most out of your breakthrough all those years ago. You don’t worry that all of this might be made obsolete by the next great idea…?”
Player A: (a little thrown off) “Well, that’s why I hire the best and brightest, such as you!”
Player B: “I was just a little surprised on the tour to see that you’re still heavily investing in traditional manufacturing procedures. Everything we were exploring in my doctoral program points to quantum computing as the way forward…”
Player A: “Quantum computing…?”
There are many ways that the status or power exchange can occur (as discussed below) but make sure this challenge remains at the center of the scene. You can also be strategic when assigning initial roles and statuses. Players who typically resist change or ceding the high ground may find giving up their power in the scene particularly disconcerting and so might benefit from at least initially experiencing the game from this orientation. While players who prefer assuming low status might find some discomfort in the high status role, I find that they are generally more willing to allow their status to change as the scene demands.
Traps and Tips
1.) Don’t conflate rank and status. I consider this idea more fully in the Status entry but be wary of assuming that social rank and status are necessarily one and the same. As this exercise explores, status is in reality quite fluid, and while the CEO is likely to normally hold the higher status position, particularly when they are ensconced in their high rise office, their occupational rank may stand in contrast with their relational status. This scenic dynamic can benefit from beginning in the “traditional” status configuration (the boss is high, the intern is low) as this allows a more dynamic and potentially unexpected adjustment, but there is certainly great value in starting with less expected configurations and watching the CEO find their way back to the top of the pecking order.
2.) Explore different initial status gaps. A CEO with an intern innately offers a pretty substantial starting status gap, but this distance is another fruitful area of exploration. You could begin with a relationship that would suggest a stark status contrast and then adjust this in the backstory or given circumstances right from the top of the scene. Perhaps the intern is the CEO’s child or parent, or both characters have long been best friends, or are currently head-over-heels in love spouses. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s also exciting to explore initial starting points that instinctively suggest a closer status distinction, such as a CEO and CFO, or an intern and their peer who has been with the company for just a few months. Such configurations invite gentler scenic work and subtler “swaps” that open up a new level of playful discovery.
3.) Pursue different swapping rhythms and dynamics. As players explore various scenarios and journeys also be on the lookout for different ways in which the status can effectively switch. I’d caution against discussing these possibilities prior to getting on your feet and playing the game in favor of recognizing this variety and celebrating it as it organically emerges. There is a marked difference, for example, if the status swap occurs swiftly and suddenly in essentially one large move or choice, as opposed to a more measured and patient approach where the exchange is gradual and incremental. Similarly, the scene will feel rather different if there is a status inversion in the closing moments as a “rug pull” as opposed to as the result of a bold choice in the opening moments. There is no one right strategy to pursue but rather a multitude of approaches that can unlock powerfully diverse potentials.
4.) Embrace and justify the switch. Just in case this doesn’t go without saying, make sure you are consciously and actively embracing the status switch as it emerges (even if the character is seemingly resisting it). The first step in this journey might be unintended or small so it’s important that players are mining the scene with an attitude that the process of changing status could be triggered by almost anything. In fact, I’d offer, that the more riveting scenes tend to be those where the players don’t aggressively offer tilts but rather recognize their potential from the organic flow of the action. It will also prove less satisfying if the ultimate status inversion is not appropriately justified: sure, someone could just flip their status at the end of the scene, but as is the case with all improv, it’s more about the process than just leaping to an intended outcome. (To this end it’s also innately less powerful if players enter the scene with a pre-determined mechanism for switching their status that they work towards regardless of what other fruitful potentials emerge.)
I’ve presented this dynamic as a training exercise but it is certainly stage worthy either as a declared frame or as a more subtly discovered game. It tends to work best if you focus on one central relationship, but other players can certainly support the action with strategic and generous side support. In long-form modalities, status inversions (and possibly recoveries) can also dynamically and successfully span and shape the dominant dramatic arc given care and finesse. One could easily argue that this type of journey is often central to the scripted realm as well – just think of King Lear or Oedipus Rex or Medea or Tartuffe or Stop Kiss…
Connected Concept: Change