“Subordinate to fun, competition intensifies both fun and cooperation, but when distorted by extraneous rewards for winning, competition tends to create the reverse of all positive potential value.”Neva Leona Boyd, Play and Game Theory in Group Work: A Collection of Papers. Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, 1971. p.123
The Decider is a traditional element of most short-form competitive formats that typically occurs after some sort of introduction and warm-up and before the main course of the games. It stands as a mainstay of franchises such as Theatresports, Gorilla Theatre and Comedysportz, providing a means to determine the order of play as the show begins, or in the event of a draw between the teams, as a tiebreaker at the end of the night. There are a wide array of options, from line games, to scenic battles, competitive songs or endowments. Many will include a host serving in a facilitating or judging capacity, most will encourage audience interaction, and all – if executed well – should leave everyone clambering for more.
Host: “And now that you’ve met the teams and know the rules, it’s time to determine who earns the distinct advantage of playing first tonight…”
Decidedly Detailed Decider Dynamics
While the decider can feel a little perfunctory, when wielded with precision this component of the show can serve multiple important functions.
1.) Modeling good improv tenants. It can seem unfathomable for those of us who have committed decades to the field of improv that anyone hasn’t seen this form of art, and yet if you’re performing in a commercial venue you’re still likely to encounter some (if not many) first-timers in the house. A good decider offers an opportunity to model the basic tenants and nature of improv, from its sense of playfulness and irreverence to its collaborative spirit and elevation of good sportsmanship. I am personally disinclined towards deciders that I would categorize as “parlor games” for this reason as they don’t tend to put improv technique at the forefront of the event.
2.) Warming up the audience and players. While a self-proclaimed warm-up often precedes the decider, this latter element of the show should continue the task of preparing the players and audience alike for the action that follows. When the audience directly participates in the process of eliminations, or serves as a continued source for ask-fors, their energy, excitement and receptiveness will likely build. Seeking a decider that pushes the performers in their skill set will also (hopefully) sharpen their listening, attack and abandon for the following performance. There can be a fine line between pushing the players and overwhelming them and it’s important that the decider models some finesse or impressiveness (alongside some delightful struggle): I might think twice as an audience member about staying for a show if the company can’t make it through an initial game with some grace. For this reason, I’m not a fan of deciders that reveal inherent skill deficits among the majority of the company. If the teams are not populated by strong singers, then don’t sing; if you’re not good at word-play then avoid punchline games…
3.) Introducing the players and frame. As noted above, many short-form shows involve a competitive frame and the decider provides an important opportunity to establish this conceit. Some playful heat between the teams can color the action if this is your penchant, and players can further develop their individual and team personae (the underdogs, the braggarts, the newbies, the challengers…). You can also sow the seeds of a greater shape of show: will the winning team continue their impressive feats of skill or face a comeuppance? As Boyd offers above, true competition and improv strike me as odd bedfellows, but there is ample room here to playfully wink at the overarching “battle” through exaggeration, lampooning and unbridled whimsy.
4.) Building momentum and connection. Lastly, unless serving as a show-closer, deciders should also raise the energy and dynamism of the performance, making the audience want more. (Arguably, even as a tiebreaker at night’s end this is true as you want to encourage the audience to stay for the following show or spill out into the street raving about the experience.) Meandering deciders that display little attack or finesse can do more harm than good. Some of my favorite deciders, such as Story, Story Die, I’ll only slate if I have three or four players in the mix as it takes a lot of strength to keep a story artfully building over multiple rounds – you may be stacking the odds against yourself if you start with a luxurious bank of eight or nine. Furthermore, while I must admit that I can personally show reluctance in throwing a decider (I feel that the audience usually senses this choice and so it undermines the conceit) there are times that someone just needs to go out to keep the greater game alive. At the end of the day we have to be wary that the company isn’t having more (often inexplicable) fun than the audience they should be entertaining. If the audience routinely grows listless or bored, you’re doing something wrong.
In experienced and focused hands, a lot can occur in the seemingly simple moment of the show decider. Make sure you’re not throwing away this opening element that is so ripe with potential and power.
Connected Game: Da Doo Ron Ron