I appreciate the simple elegance of Endowment Circle and how it quickly reveals the multi-faceted allure of complex and interesting characters. As the name would suggest, the exercise embodies the core concept of Endowing or how we as improvisers can give each other powerful character-centric gifts.
Players form a circle and one improviser (Player A) volunteers to serve as the focus of the game. Player A places themselves in the middle of the circle, often on a chair, and one-at-a-time others enter to perform a brief vignette of approximately three to five lines. By the end of each vignette the entering player should have successfully endowed a new quality, trait or biographical detail for Player A to assume. A series of disparate vignettes unfolds, with new players entering at will. While the scenes may move around a little in time, players should strive to avoid factual contradictions that could not coexist (such as Player A is a five-year-old child and a parent of a five-year-old child).
Player A sits in the middle of the circle. A random player (B) enters and begins.
Player B: “I just know that you’re going to say yes to the next dress.”
Player A: “It’s just such a big choice, Angie! Am I rushing into this?!”
Player B: “That’s crazy talk! I’ve never seen a couple better suited. Ooo, here’s the next one…”
Player A: “It has a lot of ruffles!!”
Player B: “It’s your big day girl! You deserve to have ruffles!!!”
Player B gently exits as a new player (C) enters the circle, holding a mimed clipboard.
Player C: “And you realize you were going 45 in a clearly posted 40 zone?”
Player A: “I must have been distracted officer.”
Player C: “You didn’t use to be so reckless when we were dating…”
Player A: “Look you can’t keep pulling me over, Steve, just cause you want to talk.”
Player C: “Is that an engagement ring on your finger…?!?”
Those players who assume the endowing position should work to help make Player A’s new persona as well-rounded, nuanced and interesting as possible. Avoid the over-original or “clever” choice that might needlessly complicate the path for those that follow in lieu of something more relationship-based and honest. It’s difficult to come back from a revelation that the subject is, in fact, an alien wearing a human skin for example!
Traps and Tips
1.) Vignettes needn’t connect. At least as the game is launching there can be a joy in exploring a wide field of different characters and connections. The temptation to connect and hurriedly build story lurks strongly for many improvisers, so try to relax that inclination. (Even in my own example above I couldn’t help but make the two stories at least reference the pending nuptials which isn’t necessary or perhaps even helpful in the opening moves of the exercise.) It’s worth a side coaching adjustment if this tendency immediately starts to dominate as it will make it much more difficult for new character shades and facets to enter the mix which is, in no small part, the purpose of the game. Eventually players will unavoidably start to connect some dots, but don’t rush to this later evolution of the exercise.
2.) Relish consistent inconsistency. Another temptation players may face is a desire to make every choice and energy line up neatly and orderly in a row. This line of thinking would suggest that if Player A is established as “nice” or “competent” or “organized” then they should be “nice” or “competent” or “organized” in every subsequent relationship or situation. In theatrical reality the opposite instinct is nearly always more engaging and lifelike. If our protagonist is a nice co-worker, perhaps they are a belligerent and entitled customer; if they are competent as a parent, they may feel completely overwhelmed when they interact with their own parents; if they have a tidy and organized home, it might follow that their love life is an absolute disaster! I refer to this rich messiness as consistent inconsistency as it doesn’t mean that choices are factually contradictory or random, but rather that our characters do not show the same face to everyone they encounter in their life. Much like the similarly complex concept of specific ambiguity, assuming such an approach to character creates fertile inner dynamics and tensions.
3.) Protagonists should play along. While it’s important that each new entering player initiates their vignette with a clear or loaded offer – “Hi, how are you” and similarly empty choices won’t help much here – it’s equally crucial that the protagonist (Player A) doesn’t merely become a ploddingly passive passenger. This can be a difficult line to walk at times but the exercise tends to prove more playful and revelatory when Player A bravely responds in kind, returning endowments with details of their own once they have a sense of the latent potentials intended in the opening salvo. If Player A is initially unsure as to what they are being pitched, it is certainly in the spirit of the exercise for them to patiently give their scene partner a little grace so that they can re-frame or solidify the original intent. But, the game attains more energy and joy when the protagonist then clarifies endowments and ideas by responding with their own point of view. There can be a tendency for the outer players to deliver a series of mini monologues in their efforts to communicate clearly; ensuring there’s room for the protagonist to play back enables a more bracing use of the vignettes.
4.) Focus on a day. I find it helpful to provide clear boundaries for the game in terms of time and space. When the encounters occur in the span of one day, perhaps jumping back and forth a little, it becomes easier to track and honor previously established choices. If the protagonist leaps from their childhood self to a modern-day adult and back again, players can strain to maintain the thread (although it’s certainly worthwhile to develop an ability to leap around in time as well). The same holds true in terms of the geographic focus or parameters. I’ll introduce the game as a “neighborhood of characters” meaning that these are people who are likely to commonly appear in each others’ daily spheres. There are always exceptions to the guidelines, and a cutaway scene to the home country and grandparents of our protagonist might unlock some really cool nuances, but in general it’s helpful to consider who they might bump into during their day-to-day routines.
When you’re using this exercise to build skills and a deeper understanding of endowing it’s worth your time to debrief after each protagonist has been fully fleshed out by the ensemble. Were there any glaring contradictions or examples of endowments being misunderstood or clumsily communicated? What rich consistent inconsistencies emerged that would prove exciting to explore further? Were endowments offered with a sense of joy and generosity in a way that set the central character up for playful success? Did the protagonist feel supported by the ensemble while also retaining agency? When the group truly takes care of Player A the experience can prove quite freeing and exciting as their primary responsibility becomes bravely listening and reacting organically.
I love the moral and biographical complexity that routinely emerges from this exploration and can see a great value in building characters and relationships in this manner for use in later performances if you’re so inclined (and perhaps even as a way for giving depth to a cast of scripted characters during a traditional rehearsal process). The exercise encourages us to think of all the different types of relationships and interactions that define us, from the deeply personal to the seemingly more mundane.
Connected Concept: Endowing