I find that I keep returning to the warm-up Go again and again as few games rival its innate ability to bring the Ensemble together at the beginning of a rehearsal or performance. When played with focus and commitment it’s not uncommon to feel that the space has actually changed from a group of individuals into a more self-aware and present team.
There are three common phases to the warm-up. The exercise begins in a circle formation.
Phase One: One player (A) begins the exercise by pointing to another across the circle (B). Think of this gesture as asking permission to move and assume the selected player’s spot. The chosen player (B) gives this permission to move by clearly saying “go.” Player A may now vacate their original position and walk across the circle to their new home, Player B’s current space. To facilitate this move, Player B must now leave their current position and does so by repeating the pattern, pointing randomly across the circle to another improviser (C) thereby asking them to make room. It is important to the flow and dynamic of the game that players do not move until their teammate has verbally signaled that they may do so with the “go.” Improvisers continue to change places at a gently increasing pace, each time asking and receiving permission to move.
Phase Two: Once the exercise has been strongly established, players may initiate the second phase of the game. While the basic signal of deliberate pointing remains the same – with the “tagged” player then looking for a new spot in the circle – improvisers now show their agreement by clearly nodding rather than saying “go.” When this new response is introduced, all players should adapt and join the second phase. Participants should also continue to exercise caution that they do not move until clearly invited to do so by the player across the circle that they have nominated. Generally the pace will increase a little with each phase, especially if the focus of the ensemble proves strong.
Phase Three: The process evolves into the third phase once the group has found a steady rhythm and “success.” (For the purposes of this particular exercise I’d define that as jaunty momentum and effective communication.) Now players dispense with the clear and directional “point” that designated their intended target. Instead, improvisers seeking to vacate their spots in the circle make strong and deliberate eye contact with another person who completes the pattern by nodding as they did in the above phase. This dynamic of a chain of position swaps continues until the game reaches an organic end or climax. This may be joyful collapse or joyful success but in any case it should be joyful!
Speaking of focus, it is difficult for this exercise to “land” if players are not able to give it all of their focus, commitment and attention. Discourage any side conversations or distracting behavior as the exercise begins and keep commentary or sidecoaching to an absolute bare minimum.
Traps and Tips
1.) Model the preferred dynamic. I imagine many improvisers have encountered this exercise in one form or another, but if you’re facilitating a new group or workshop where you expect to work alongside first-timers don’t rush over the core dynamic. Many find the critical restriction of staying planted in your spot until receiving the “go” or nod as surprisingly counterintuitive. Take a few moments (or more) to break this down into bite-sized instructions: it’s helpful to identify the initial “point” as an equivalent to the improv offer, the “go” as the acceptance or “yes,” and the subsequent movements across the circle as the “and.” The exercise demands a level of ceding control that some can find a little challenging when they are first exposed to the technique.
2.) Discourage insider games. Experienced players can sometimes distrust the beautiful simplicity of this game that brings the ensemble into shared time and space. This may manifest itself in creating “sub-games” such as I’m just going to point to the person right beside me, or keep the focus moving between two or three of the same people, or add an unnecessarily quirky energy or expression during the focus exchanges. This is a major pet peeve as such diversions nearly always undermine the group cohesion. Stress the importance of full involvement as no-one wants to feel like they are being excluded from a group warm-up, and reiterate the need to select players across the circle if for no other reason than to keep traffic patterns safe and open.
3.) Pace the phases. A well-established ensemble may quickly be able to read each other and move through all three phases with delightful efficiency, but it’s not a race to get to the end of the warm-up. Especially when there are new members present who may have little prior experience with the logistics, it’s antithetical to speed through each phase in a way that leaves some participants disconnected or overwhelmed. If one player is struggling, the ensemble should be cognizant, patient and helpful. I would offer that the group shouldn’t move to a later phase until there is a sense that everyone has found connection and success in the current phase. This would also necessitate that everyone has been in the chain at least once as well. There is something poetic about the group collectively deciding when this dynamic shift should occur (as opposed to an instructor or coach announcing it), but players should develop an awareness for when the whole ensemble will benefit from advancing to the next level of challenge.
4.) Embrace the connections. Among the many things I value about this exercise is that when played with deliberateness and awareness it provides an opportunity for improvisers to have at least a brief connection with many if not all of the other players in attendance. Take that moment to really see each fellow teammate and to check in or reconnect with them. This is why I discourage adding quirky mannerisms, winks or the like as such “additions” puncture this simple but important opportunity. Having a smile behind the focus gives and takes -or at least an honest pleasantry – can surprisingly change the tone of the game and, frankly, the mood in the space. If it becomes too “efficient” or hurried you may be losing out on this somewhat intangible but nonetheless important outcome.
And that’s the basics of Go, a sleek (and rather pervasive) improv warm-up that offers more than might immediately meet the eye. Avoid end gaming and pushing to the perceived goal; rather, let the process unfold as it needs to on this particular day with this particular group of players striving to find each other and forge an ensemble in this particular space.
Connected Concept: Ensemble