Deceptively simple but surprising rich with lessons, Player Interview explores effortlessness in our choices and narrative, which, in turn, serves as a helpful antidote if striving towards Cleverness is hampering your progress on stage.
Players work in pairs, find their own spot in the space, and determine who will serve as Player A and Player B respectively. Player A will perform as the first interviewer with B acting as their guest. Prior to the interview, Player B should self-select an area of interest or expertise, something that they truly have some knowledge about. It may be a hobby, passion, or even just about a period of their own life. This topic is shared with the interviewer, and the scene begins. Interviewers are responsible for keeping the conversation lively and engaged for five or six minutes as they inquire about B’s area of expertise. At the conclusion of the first interview (which are typically performed simultaneously around the space and timed by a facilitator or instructor), players may take a quick moment to share their experiences before the roles are reversed: A is now the expert and B is the interviewer.
Player B has shared the topic of “Shakespeare” for the interview.
Player A: “Thanks for letting me ask you a few questions. A lot of people first encounter Shakespeare in high school. Was this your experience?
Player B: “Yes, it was actually. My first memory was reading some passages aloud in an English class and realizing that I wasn’t very good at it! The language was so loaded and complex…”
Player A: “I can relate! Do you remember the play?”
Player B: “I think it was Twelfth Night, or in any case, that was the play I ended up working on for a class assignment. I remember trying to get to the bottom of some of the play’s references and allusions.”
Player A: “Anything in particular that still resonates for you?”
Player B: “Malvolio, the steward in the play, references a case of a lady of the day marrying her servant, which gives his passions fire and was probably a pretty well known scandal for Shakespeare’s audience. But I think I was most intrigued by the play’s setting, Illyria, which was a unique and pretty interesting location.”
Player A: “How so…?”
Strive for ease, comfort and active listening during the exercise. When you are truly in the moment, the next avenue of exploration tends to open up more readily than if you are a prisoner of your improv mind scrambling to construct a next step while your partner talks in the background. Novice improvisers can find the thought of filling a scene with material as oppressive; on a simple level, this exercise reveals that material can emerge without stress when you are present in the moment.
Traps and Tips
1.) Style tips. There can be a tendency, especially in the role of the interviewer, to add a more performative frame to the exercise by assuming a smarmy persona, addressing a studio audience, or holding a mimed microphone. While there is nothing innately “wrong” with such choices, and you certainly could explore this activity with more of a polished veneer, the exercise does not need these additions. There is something quite powerful (and perhaps vulnerable) about just being yourself. In the interviewer position, don’t feel the need to feign interest: actually follow the story or information that you find appealing or enlightening. As the expert, don’t feel you need to become “a character” or overly inventive: it’s okay not to know an answer. This game really invites us to just be ourselves.
2.) Interviewer tips. Remember that the focus of the exercise should generally remain squarely on the expert. If you find yourself engaging in lengthy set-ups or voluminous flights of fancy, you might want to address this. (It’s good to get into the habit of knowing where the focus of any given scene or game resides, and leaning into this.) Questions that require a simple “yes” or “no” as answer are less likely ultimately to inspire the narrative. If you meander into such a moment accidentally, seek a follow up question that is more likely to inspire. Whenever possible, privilege the emerging story and help the expert get the needed facts and details out. It’s your job to make them comfortable and look good. If you share knowledge on their subject, feel free to use it in a supportive fashion; if you know nothing about their topic, feel equally free to ask foundational questions to help you find your footing.
3.) Expert tips. The exercise can take on quite a different tone and journey if you select a topic that isn’t really in your wheelhouse, so unapologetically choose a subject that you really enjoy. As noted above, it is more than appropriate for this to be something quite personal, such as raising a pet, your hometown, or an international experience you had on vacation. Strive to include specifics: it can be challenging for the interviewer if they have to keep interrupting the flow of your narrative to learn basics such as a character’s name, or the setting for your story. While I’d discourage inventiveness or unabashed falsehoods – it’s okay, after all, to say you don’t know the answer to a question – it’s generally helpful to assume the mantel of an expert and make good faith assumptions or assertions if material strays a little away from your area of interest.
4.) Story tips. The exercise will feel less joyful or successful if the expert asks a series of disconnected questions in a buckshot fashion. While it is foreseeable that you might need a few general questions initially to find a thread of interest to explore, this simple conceit is a great way to practice and deploy your story-telling skills: look for the next step forward by examining what has already been established and discussed; repeat any details of interest and be sure to incorporate them into follow up questions; balance a sense of advancing (moving onto the next organic moment of the story) with extending (mining for more descriptive specifics). If a line of questioning dries up, generally it’s a fruitful technique to look backwards for a prior story thread that you didn’t have time to pursue earlier.
This is strong icebreaker if you are developing rapport among a group or class that are still taking their first steps together. In these cases, I’ll strategically mix up and assign the pairs to avoid known cliques, or simply ask players to self-select someone with whom they have never worked before. This exercise typically reveals that we can easily craft dynamic and engaging material when we are just ourselves, exploring topics of interest together, and allowing our innate charm or wit to emerge.
Connected Concept: Cleverness