Game Library: “Verbal Freeze Tag”

Equally useful as an Edit device, warm-up, or structural component of a long-form, Verbal Freeze Tag promotes listening, connections and leaping into the improvisational fray. I’ve woven some variant of this dynamic into many of my own original pieces, such as The Renga, Murder We Wrote and E Pluribus Unum. It’s a helpful dynamic for picking up speed and cutting quickly between action on various parts of the stage.

The Basics

When explored as a warm-up, the ensemble forms a large circle with chairs placed at the “compass points” for easy access during the process. A pair of improvisers (A and B) start a scene, perhaps centered on a prompt such as a theme or relationship. Players should fully commit to the action at hand and not rush through the beats. When any player standing on the perimeter (C) hears an inspiring line and feels that the current scene has had sufficient time to develop, they step into the playing field and repeat or paraphrase the last spoken line as an indication they are starting a new and unrelated scene. Player C should then indicate a scene partner as needed while the original players accept the proffered edit and return to the circle to recycle into the action later (likely as new characters in new situations). Scenes continue to edit each other in this fashion as players improvise a variety of brief vignettes.


Player A and B begin a scene in the middle of the circle based on the suggestion of moving.

Player A: (carrying a large box) “And I think that’s the last of my stuff.”

Player B: (looking around) “The apartment looked a lot bigger before we moved all of our junk into it…”

Player A: “I can’t seem to find the box with the list of what’s in all the boxes…”

Player B: (mildly annoyed but looking anyway) “It’s got to be around here somewhere.”

Player C enters from the sidelines crawling on their hands and knees.

Player C: (panicked) “It’s got to be around here somewhere.”

As Players A and B retreat to the circle, Player D has entered with a mimed flashlight to join the action.

Player D: “You’ve retraced every step back to the parking garage?”

Player C: “I have! I was showing Alexios how shiny the ring was under the lighting here.”

Player D: (pointing the flashlight down) “You don’t think it could have rolled down that storm grate…?”

The Focus

Encourage strong and deliberate focus grabs as the dynamic loses its effectiveness when wimping sneaks in. Even when players only have a raw impulse to enter as opposed to a formed conceit (which I’d posit should actually be the norm) it’s important that they make their edit clean and confident. Depending on the size of the group and what you hope to get out of the exercise, it can also prove helpful to establish some simple goals – such as every player initiating one edit before the game finishes – to encourage bravery and participation.

Traps and Tips

1.) Leap before you look. As I note above, there isn’t a lot of room in this exercise for careful contemplation and consideration. Much like physical freeze tag games, if you attempt to construct the outline of your choice before jumping in to start the scene, the moment where your envisioned idea would best serve has likely already passed into the ether. (If players are repeating lines that were said a few beats ago as their tags this is symptomatic of a pre-planning approach.) It’s more invigorating and dangerous to trust and simply grab at a line that you like as an edit. As you then quickly take the focus you can figure out more details in real time knowing that your scene partner is there to help as well. It’s also in the spirit of the game to gently smudge a word or line – changing the tense or subject – but I’d caution against wholesale adjustments that are intended to make the line of dialogue bend forcefully to an ill-fitting predetermined conceit. This strikes me as an equivalent to tagging someone out in a physical freeze tag game only to completely drop the specifics of their pose when starting the next scene. There is a wonderful inherent disposability in this game as one vignette quickly disappears into the mix after another so embrace the joy of living truly in the moment and risking that some scenes will fizzle a little.

2.) Practice pitching your edit. Edit lines will certainly just emerge randomly from the scene work, and much of the joy comes from delightful verbal stumbles that invite creative or unexpected next moves. That being said, this frame also offers a helpful means to practice offering up edits or buttons to our teammates. When we know that others are dependent on our specific words for their inspiration we can use this knowledge to our advantage. There are some common traps in this regard. Lacing your sentences with needlessly repetitive scene-specific jargon can thwart those waiting to tag you out if they don’t want to follow one scene with another based on similar material or actions. Here a little specific ambiguity can go a long way once everyone is on the same page in terms of the scene’s focus. Replacing “I can’t believe how well you’ve trained your dog” with “I can’t believe how well you’ve trained her” is more likely to open a new door for the next players. Generally any scenic dynamic that circles aimlessly around the same few words will invite a similar challenge. If you’re confident that a strong CROW has been established and your scene has had its moment, offering up a juicy open-ended line serves as a generous focus give.

3.) Select your intended partner. There are numerous ways for the incoming player who has verbally “tagged” the action to find a scene partner and most of these will probably emerge organically given the chance. Strong eye contact across the circle to an intended improviser usually suffices, or gently tapping someone on the back or arm who’s standing beside you to invite them to join. If you tend to use improviser’s real names in your work, this is another clear approach; if you prefer invented names then you’d need to combine it with one of the approaches above. It can also prove exciting to just enter alone, make your need or premise clear, and trust that someone will just randomly self-select and come to your aid. This might result in some three or four player scenes – which I wouldn’t recommend as the norm as pairs enable a cleaner flow of focus – but a few larger cast vignettes can add some nice variety and challenge. I don’t generally play this with improvisers keeping a character from the prior scene in the mix in a “run” or “revolving door” manner, although this is certainly a valid way of working with the frame. In these cases, you’d want to set a clear mechanism for adjusting the current cast, perhaps through strong eye contact with an existing player you’d like to remain and waving off those who are no longer needed.

4.) Take your time with callbacks. If your company loves reincorporations and callbacks, and most companies do, I’d gently recommend that you endeavor to at least begin the game without utilizing these techniques. You are more likely to inspire a broader and more interesting array of material if scenes are initially unrelated, or perhaps just gently connected by a suggested theme or subject. Such a scattershot approach tends to give the exercise more room to grow organically as early callbacks will frequently hasten on the curve of absurdity and unnecessarily shorten the duration of scenes as players race to grab the next obvious connection. I deeply enjoy the generative nature of this exercise when the assumption is that there is no expectation for scenes or characters to reappear. This mindset also results in some wonderfully unexpected non sequiturs. When played in this expansive fashion if an occasional callback does emerge it shines all the brighter and will often provide the button or “out.”

5.) Know your focus. I’ve partnered Verbal Freeze Tag with the concept of Edits as this skill is unquestionably sharpened when playing the game thoughtfully. But this is not to say that there are not many other improvisational techniques that can be placed front and center with similarly strong results. I’ve used the form with strong effect to explore how to unpack a theme in complex ways. It’s similarly helpful if you’re looking for a way to rehearse strong character entrances or scene starts. Other lenses I’ve used include workshopping how to craft dynamic locations, providing an opportunity for a newly formed company to get in rotations with a variety of other players, or getting out the “bad” improv if everyone has been away from the process for a while. Regardless of the focus, it’s generally helpful to make this intent explicitly clear as it not only centers the work but can also provide a freshness to an exercise that players might have played on many occasions.

In Performance

Verbal tags would rank amongst my favorite forms of edits as they are elegant, versatile and not dependent upon a heavy level of technical support. In looser long-forms my troupes will often use this technique to signal a split scene (or revolving door) where action is temporarily suspended as a new scene introduces a contrasting or heightening energy. Once both or several scenes have been established we’ll then continue to use the verbal freeze device to move focus back and forth. Often this establishes an awareness and rhythm that can ultimately transcend potentially belabored verbal repeats as scenes begin to comment upon and respond to the dialogue of their counterparts in more delightfully varied ways.

Cheers, David Charles.
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Photo Credit: Scott Cook
© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Edits

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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