The exercise Alliances encourages nuanced strategies to get what you want in an improv scene and typically dissuades players from pursuing unproductive Conflict and arguing which, as is the case in most improv scenes and life, are largely ineffective as tactics.
Players work in groups of four. A basic premise or scenario is provided and a clear time limit is set (typically two minutes or so works well). A scene is performed in which players must strive to remain in the majority at all times; that is, three players existing in an alliance with the fourth clearly excluded. Players may (and should) shift alliances at will, but there must always be a clear “in” group and one outsider. When the time limit is reached, those currently in the alliance are declared victors.
A middle-school playground during lunchtime is provided as the scenario. Players A, B, C and D all assume the roles of students as the scene begins.
Player A opens up their lunchbox and begins eating a sandwich while sitting on a bench.
Player B: “Oh, no. I think I forgot my lunch again…”
Players C and D both decide to join A’s activity and begin eating as well. [B is now clearly outside of the alliance.]
Player C: (to A) “I have an extra cookie if you want it.”
Player A: “Thanks! Chocolate chip is my favorite!”
Player D: “Anyone want to trade juice boxes? I don’t like grape, but my Dad always gives it to me.”
Player B has picked up a stone and started playing hop-scotch.
Player B: “Anyone wanna see if we can break our record?”
Player A: (putting their lunchbox away and running over) “Sure! I’m done with my lunch anyway!”
Player D: (quickly running over too) “And you can have my juice box since you don’t have any lunch.”
Player B: (taking the drink and jumping) “You’re such a good friend.” [C is now clearly outside the alliance.]
Player C: (still seated) “I have two more cookies if anyone wants one.”
Don’t be surprised if the exercise quickly feels all-too human, especially if you use paradigmatic scenarios such as that above. Kindhearted players might try to “solve” the dynamic by bringing everyone together or working to engineer pairs, approaches that unfortunately undermine the central premise. Side-coaching might prove necessary in these instances to remind everyone that by definition someone must always clearly be excluded from the group. Also, while I’m a big fan of complementary characters, this exercise tends to thrive with parallel or homogeneous roles as this provides a level playing field (although it would certainly be of value to see three middle schoolers and their teacher, for example).
Traps and Tips
1.) Embrace inclusion and exclusion. It’s human nature to fight being left out, and this instinct is central to the game’s conceit, but players should joyfully accept the swift changes in the social status quo. If you are the fourth to the party in this particular exercise, you’ve probably already lost that “round” and doggedly trying to push your way into the clique will rarely work. Enjoy your outside status and take it as an opportunity to formulate a new angle. It’s helpful for the scene and exercise to also physically model this accepted position away from the current alliance so that everyone is on the same page as to who is in and who is out.
2.) Fence sit at your own peril. The ebbs and flows of this dynamic scene tend to run swiftly and players will quickly learn that if they procrastinate too long others will often seize alliance opportunities before them. This discovered truth can encourage full-throttled accepting, but be cautious that it doesn’t just become an unfocused scramble. Players should still give each other sufficient room to pitch clear choices and responses as you would in any other scene. There is also no rule or expectation that existing alliances must immediately break at the first sign of pressure especially if they are still serving the needs of their members well. You just want to make sure that you…
3.) Justify rather than block. “Bad” improv technique can easily sneak into this exercise as players compete for the safety of belonging to the group. Discourage outright blocking and wimping. It diminishes the scenic veracity, for example, if a character offers a cookie only to be met with “That isn’t a cookie.” A reply of “I’m diabetic and can’t have sugar,” on the other hand, accepts the premise while enabling the speaker to keep a distance if that’s their wish. Skillful justification makes all the difference as players look for ways to join the “in” crowd. And if you can’t compose such a rebuttal in a timely fashion then it’s in the spirit of the game to let your partner “win” and to adjust the existing alliance accordingly. This attitude is particularly important if you’re working with younger players who might be tempted to recreate real life cliques on the stage and harmfully stick to them.
4.) It’s about tactics. At the end of the day, Alliances is all about tactics and exploring different (often devious or mischievous) ways to get what you want from your scene partners. Sometimes a simple choice will quickly reap dividends, such as offering up an exciting activity or opportunity; other times it may quickly fizz without fanfare into the ether. Rarely will one repeated tactic work again and again so players must continually look for the next potential way to win over their scene partners. Inventiveness and active listening are key. And remember that a new alliance needn’t always be instigated by the fourth outsider character: it might prove strategic to be the first to abandon the current majority group to form a new one if the former is becoming shaky, dull or vulnerable.
In addition to providing regular time warnings, a caller (or instructor) may need to keep an eye out for infractions such as players forming pairs, individuals not accepting outsider status, or egregious instances of blocking or wimping. And, as is always the case on the stage, players should not physically grab or push each other around to achieve their goals. While conflict sits at the center of this dynamic, overt arguing or aggression will quickly prove unsuccessful and unwatchable for any length of time. Instead, players must play at the top of their intelligence and mine more subtle and nimble ways of building and manipulating the tension. I would argue that this increased awareness is one of the more lasting gifts of the game. I’ve exclusively explored this game as an in-class exercise but I’m intrigued by the possibility of using it as a frame for an open scene (in Gorilla Theatre or similar) or perhaps even as a decider – I just haven’t quite figured out those logistics yet!
Connected Concept: Conflict