Game Library: “Phonebank”

Does anyone remember phonebanks?! This potentially anachronistically titled game works well in both short-form settings as a stand-alone game, as well as in larger long-form productions. I’ve woven it into my Variations on a Theme and ImprOvientation pieces as a a featured structural component as is seen in the picture above. Phonebank thrives on Connections and allows characters to playfully weave together their own stories with those of fellow teammates.

The Basics

I’ve formulated a rather layered and structured approach to this game that has worked well in performance but you can certainly just play with the general premise and allow the pace to evolve as it will. I’m considering the game in a short-form setting for this entry, so each player should elicit a different premise for their phone conversation such as who is on the other end of the phone, something emotional or unexpected that has just happened, or an urgent need or desire. When played in a long-form setting these prompts or character motivations have usually evolved organically from prior actions and scene work. Using four players works particularly well in this form, providing sufficient material to develop the interplay without causing overwhelming focus issues.

Phase One: One at a time the four characters gradually enter the playing field. Each improviser establishes their own phone in a phonebank (or, alternatively, brings on their personal cell phone) and begins a call to an unseen and unheard offstage partner. As each player is crafting this introduction, the next player should enter and physically establish themselves to facilitate a smooth transition so that only one player is actively talking at any given moment. In this manner, all four players should arrange themselves (typically in a straight line) and introduce their imaginary scene partner and basic premise. Once established, players should continue to craft new material inspired by their backstory or prompt, working to effectively and generously give and take focus up and down the line as the need arises. This phase is marked by new disconnected material which only serves the objectives and scenarios of each individual speaker.

Phase Two: Once all the speakers are present and their stories are sufficiently introduced, the game moves into the second phase. This tends to be about 45 seconds to a minute into the game. Characters should now seek to gently weave, echo or connect to words, ideas and themes that have been established by their scene partners. This should start off subtly, and then gradually increase in its attack as the second phase evolves. Players should still maintain the integrity of their individual worlds and conversations, but look for ways that their arcs can be nudged or influenced by other content around them. Gives and takes continue “randomly” and will often increase in pace as well. This phase is the “meat” of the game and generally builds until the scenic climax.

Phase Three: When the conversations and connections have crescendoed the game moves into its final phase, equivalent to a falling action or denouement. In the order deemed most helpful to the action, players now end their conversations by hanging up their phones and then leaving the space. These moments provide one last opportunity for characters to resolve their story thread (or potentially not resolve it especially if future scenes await) while perhaps also reflecting on any larger theme or game that has developed. Usually the scene will then end with one last onstage player making their final retort. I would classify this as the “typical” end of the game while noting that on occasion it can be more effective and dynamic to call the scene down at the pinnacle of phase two if something shocking, exciting or honest lands particularly well.

The Focus

At its core, Phonebank is a focus workout as players must carefully maneuver and share their narratives. I’ve found the core concept and structure extremely accessible with new players frequently experiencing clear success and joy. This is also a helpful vehicle for exploring how connections work (and don’t work) and how to balance this instinct with other story-telling devices.

Traps and Tips

1.) Share. Phonebank is as much about not talking as it is about talking. Players will, by design, spend a lot of time waiting for their “turn” so be sure to explore ways to remain actively present and engaged during these soft freezes. Those who enter the space later in the third or fourth positions, in particular, can sometimes get a little less stage time to craft their stories if their teammates aren’t aware. Defer to new speakers and entrances, especially if as a character you are “hot” with material flowing easily. Phonebank isn’t generally played in a set order with players speaking consecutively down the line, but if you are speaking every second or third time then, mathematically, that means someone else is getting shut out. If you fear you may be talking too much, you probably are.

2.) Focus. The second phase is certainly the most challenging but this is also the gift of the game. Players should actively listen and engage in clear and deliberate focus gives and takes. Throwing the focus away (as opposed to directing it towards another player) or petering out as a speaker tends to undermine the central dynamic, as does excessive politeness and passively waiting for your turn. Mark the end of sentences clearly if you are intending them as “gives,” using physical or verbal gifts if you want to pitch the narrative to someone in particular. Focus takes need to be well-timed and intentional: clearly shifting your weight prior to speaking can indicate you’re next, as can verbally overlapping – perhaps with an emotional utterance rather than important words – when you sense your teammate is wrapping up their offer and is ready for an edit.

3.) Discover. In addition to the defined game, Phonebank is a great vehicle for discovering and building new dynamics within the broader frame. Perhaps there is a quick run where characters just say one or two words each, a physical game that contagiously moves from one booth to the next, or a resonate theme that starts to pull all the story threads together. In addition to seeking more obvious links, such as repeated words or backstory elements, these more nuanced connections can add exciting facets and dynamism. Once players are secure with the basic principles and the focus exchanges, an eye towards organic discovery will keep the game fresh and evolving. While it’s helpful to have a sense of where your individual story thread is heading, trajectories will and should change based on what is happening around you.

4.) Delve. One of the main reasons I have utilized this game in some long-form work is that the conceit can support an enormous variety of energies and styles, from broad physical comedy to sincere and poignant catharsis. Look for opportunities to bring this wealth of human experience to the stage, whether it is in how your frame your ask-fors, or exploring both whimsical and more vulnerable takes on the material. From experience, it can be more difficult for softer hues to thrive if they are late entrances as the momentum of the game may have already become jaunty (although more sincere material needn’t be lethargic by any means). I’ve also found that a more outlandish or overtly silly choice seems to play best in the final position as this allows the audience to learn the gist of the game before upturning the apple cart. And, of course, there’s no reason that a seemingly irreverent energy can’t take a turn into something more poignant (and vice versa).

In Performance

A resilient form that can contain a broad spectrum of styles and energies, Phonebank provides a strong ensemble-based game that both polishes and requires critical improv skills. It’s one of those formats that I’ve seen, taught and played literally hundreds of times and yet it still intrigues and entertains me.

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Connections

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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