As noted in my earlier blog here, ImprOvientation is an original long-form designed to welcome first year and transfer students to campus each year at Rollins College. Exploring transitional issues, expectations and stresses inherent in a university setting, the piece seeks a playful but earnest tone and is book-ended with personal narratives and stories reflecting the company’s own experiences that might resonate with those present within the audience. The emblematic phrase of the piece is, “That reminds me of the time,” and this motif reoccurs at regular intervals, particularly in the opening sequence.
Much of the rehearsal process of ImprOvientation involves reconnecting players with their own stories and experiences that thematically echo the intent of this orientation production. If you’re familiar with Kim Howard Johnson’s Truth in Comedy you might know the game Hot Spot where players take turns singing loosely connected songs and replacing each other in the central “hot spot.” The current game under consideration takes some inspiration from this basic model, but focuses on sharing personal narratives rather than popular tunes, and so I call it Story Hot Spot.
Join me for a peek as to how to get the most out of this exercise:
Players form a circle and an initial prompt or theme may be offered — such as independence or discovery — or a player may volunteer to go first if they have a particular story or memory in mind. One player enters the circle and begins with the phrase, “That reminds me of the time…” and starts to narrate their story. Once the story has been clearly established, a new player can gently “tag out” the first player by entering the circle and editing the current speaker with the same opening phrase. The original speaker should wrap up their current sentence and return to the perimeter as the new player takes focus. This process of tagging out speakers continues through several rounds, ideally until at least every player has had at least one opportunity to share.
There are a lot of different gifts you can seek from this exercise, from simply generating material for a rehearsal or performance, to building group awareness and listening, to exploring pace and build and how to craft an energetic crescendo. Perhaps the most important “rules” of the exercise are that stories must be true and have occurred personally to the speaker. This isn’t an exercise to share urban myths or that family story passed down from generation to generation. As with the related Hot Spot game, it is also important (if not critical) that no one speaker is abandoned in the middle of the circle and that the ensemble supports each other with timely and generous edits.
The theme of “The Unknown” is offered.
The first player steps into the circle and begins, “That reminds me of the time that I arrived in the United States to begin my university education in Chicago. I miraculously made my way through the airport and found a taxi. I’d never been in the city before so I was quite nervous as I got in and sat down…”
A second player has begun during this third sentence with “That reminds me of the time I was meeting my girlfriend’s father for the first time. We had taken her car to drive up to Iowa City, and soon we were winding into a lovely little suburban area where each house seemed nicer than the last…”
A third player has tagged in as the second sentence culminates: “That reminds me of the time I sat for an English as a Second Language test…”
Traps and Tips
1.) Make sure tags are acts of love! The tags in this game are almost metaphoric and players need not physically pat each other, but their move into the circle should be clean and resolute so that it clearly communicates to the current speaker (and those waiting on the periphery) that they are taking focus. It will become obvious to the group (hopefully!) if someone is struggling to continue or has run out of material, and it’s important not to leave this person stranded. Players may be tempted to seek “the best story” before entering, but in many ways any story at the right moment will serve much better than the “perfect” story twenty seconds too late.
2.) Finish your thought. Connected to the above, the intent of the game is for players to overlap and edit each other, so don’t be thrown when a new energy enters the space. Be sure to confidently finish your final thought, although perhaps be wary of suddenly trying to cram in three extra sentences as you make your exit. Related to this advice, it’s helpful not to preamble your story too much with generalities and context as you’re likely to be edited before you get into the meat of the narrative. For example, starting with “That reminds me of the time that I learnt a very important lesson as a child. You see, I was always rambunctious and never paid much attention to the rules my parents set. On this one particular Saturday when I was five, I was headed for a comeuppance…” And tag. And we’ll never know what happened!
3.) Defer to new energies. This is my standard advice for most of these types of games, but if two or more players begin to enter the space, it’s a good rule of thumb to defer to the new player or the person who has had a more difficult time finding an “in.” When I’m working with my campus troupe we always have a mix of returning players and those new to the troupe and our exercises: in this case, I’ll always encourage returning players to have an increased awareness that they don’t let their comfort or familiarity with an exercise prevent others from participating. It can take a while for everyone’s internal performance clocks to get in sync so it’s kind to wait that extra second if you’re about to tag in for your third or fourth narrative while others are yet to enter at all.
4.) Explore variety in content and connections. This strategy may be most useful for the way in which I use the game for ImprOvientation and other similarly toned formats, but there can be a tendency to get a string of stories that all connect in a really obvious way if you’re not mindful. Someone offers a story about getting their first pet and then there are suddenly five stories in a row that are all explicitly about pets. As is the case with word association exercises, this can be indicative of players banking an idea and not letting it go or neglecting to actively listen to new threads or details dormant in the current narrative. This isn’t uncommon as new players experience the game, especially with the added risk of offering personal material. A string of similar stories tends to collapse the brainstorming element of the exercise, and so it can be helpful to nudge players to skip the obvious connection. If someone is narrating about their pet and I think of mine, can I then extrapolate at least one remove to the old house we used to live in, for example. (This is the general idea behind the principle of the “third thought.”) If you’re using this game as a material generator, this ability to skip a replicating step so as to maximize variety becomes particularly important.
5.) Honor the momentum and build. Story Hot Spot organically invites you to pick up the pace of the edits. If you’ve played it before, you’ll want to be aware that you don’t prematurely push the tempo in such a way that new players are uncomfortable or don’t have a real opportunity to contribute. But after a handful of stories, it’s typical for the length of each narrative to shorten a little before the next edit. In the example above, players were getting two or three substantial sentences out: this is less likely in the later rounds. Endeavor to avoid editing before the gist of someone’s story is established (hence the import of not offering a rambling preamble). If this happens, the edited player should just take that extra moment to finish their thought in a meaningful way. The group may instinctively drop the mantra, “That reminds me of the time,” as the game builds, and that’s fine too.
If you’ve not played with personal narratives in your troupe or process before, I can’t overstate just how much I love this game and its tone. It’s a great way to learn about your fellow company members, build connections, and find material and characters that are grounded in honest experiences. ImprOvientation uses a polished and cleanly staged iteration of this simple dynamic with players in a semi-circle, and even after sixteen years of working with this form I still find myself deeply engaged and surprised by the narratives that emerge. There are certainly many valuable skills that are honed by this game, but don’t underestimate the simple power of just sharing personal stories.
“That reminds me of the time…” we took a peek inside the rehearsal process for ImprOvientation, my first improv Orientation show devised for Rollins College in 2005.