Game Library: “Obstacle Race”

I first came across an iteration of this short-form structure during my time with Chicago Comedysportz. It’s a delightfully silly and high-energy game featuring exaggerated physicality. I re-visited and re-tooled the concept a few years ago to work for a four-person Gorilla Theatre ensemble, and it nicely utilizes the concept of embodied Discovery. Welcome to Obstacle Race! On your mark, get set, go…

The Basics

Two players serve as commentators – ideally working on microphones if they’re available – with two other teammates serving as the pantomiming athletes. Three random or potentially absurd obstacles are elicited from the audience. A slow motion scene follows in which the two runners encounter and hopefully overcome the named obstacles during their race; all-the-while the two sideline commentators provide a detailed blow by blow account of the athletes’ efforts. If you are familiar with the game Slow Motion Commentary, the primary elements are very similar.


Player A and B serve as the commentators with C and D pantomiming the athletic action. The audience suggestions for obstacles include a treacle spill. As the lights rise the two athletes are running in slow motion with the commentators positioned off to the sides of the stage.

Player A: “And welcome back from the break. For those of you just joining us we’re in the final stages of the marathon and the competition has been fierce!”

Player B: “That’s right, Erik! The Norwegian and Canadian runners have finally broken off from the pack and all eyes are on them.”

Player C and D slowly glance at each other with a sense of rivalry and continue the slow motion running… Player C has added a noticeable limp.

Player A: “Many of you will recall that these two runners were in a similar position last year when the Norwegian suffered an unexpected hamstring injury…”

Player B: “I’m sensing that this might still be an issue for the Norwegian today as they seem to be slowing…”

Player D now starts to run with labored steps and C quickly follows suit while also emphasizing their established injury.

Player B: “And what’s this? It appears that their shoes are becoming stuck on the tracks.”

Player A: “A sticky situation indeed! I’ve never seen anything like this in my thirty years of commentating!”

Player D’s shoe has become stuck and they’re fighting to peel it off the street while C dares to taste the impediment…

The Focus

This format provides an opportunity to showcase physical skill and agility. There are significantly different challenges depending on whether you assume the commentator or athlete function, so strive to rehearse in both capacities especially if one area feels less like a performance comfort zone. Also keep your focus on the give and take between players as this is key to the game’s success.

Traps and Tips

1.) Pay attention. If you’re not careful this game can become a real competition between the various player factions and functions. You need to be as cognizant of others’ choices as you are excited about your own. Offers can and should come from all participants so the commentators, in addition to sharing the focus between each other, should carefully observe and acknowledge the athletes’ actions. Inversely, it’s likely that the commentators will pitch ideas or contextualize physical choices that the athletes should be sure to incorporate and justify. The scene becomes truly dynamic when choices are effortlessly pitched, received and heightened from all involved.

2.) Mine the specifics. The audience-elicited suggestions are great launching points for the scene, especially if they are a little (or very) out-of-the-ordinary. A helpful strategy to this end can be to obtain a more traditional task or object and then ask the audience to embellish it in an unexpected way – jumping over laundry baskets instead of hurdles, for example. Luxuriate in the physicality of these unusual moments, exploring the details that emerge remembering all the while that the athletes are moving in slow motion. There can be a tendency to inadvertently crank up the speed as the scene progresses which makes it more likely that specifics will be missed or approximated, so keep the tempo slow and steady. And don’t overlook the potential of the time between the three named obstacles: avoid allowing this space to become emptily repetitive but rather use it to explore character, relationship and the ever increasing effect of the physical challenges.

3.) Utilize side support. From a live score, recorded soundtrack, well-placed Foley work or technical effects nudging the action forward, to generous Canadian Crosses from other teams or encouraged audience responses and contributions, the game is replete with potentials for interaction and embellishment. If you’re able to use tracked music, the theme song from Chariots of Fire works particularly well and adds energy and drive. More often than not the song alone usually generates a raucous audience response!

4.) Get to the action. Especially if you are playing this game in a timed environment (but also in general) just skip the seemingly obligatory “athletes warming up on the sidelines” section of the scene. It’ll burn needlessly into your time and there’s little that you can do here as a narrator that can’t just augment the scene when it starts in the midst of the action. Sequence the audience suggestions strategically so that the most bizarre or overwhelming obstacle assumes that third and final position to assist the scene’s build and payoff. If you’re able to make the obstacles cumulative to some degree with the athletes carrying the residue from one hurdle to the next that’s truly the icing on the improv cake.

In Performance

Clear and generous communication is critical as, left to its own devices, the game can become a little chaotic with an avalanche of excited offers. Give each choice sufficient time to develop and land. If you’re looking for a larger all play frame, runners can easily be replaced mid-scene (or between each obstacle) by teammates in a relay race fashion or, depending on your stage dimensions, you could have three or more runners each in their own lane.

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Discovery

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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