Game Library: “Key Word”

At its core the short-form game Key Word offers a helpful mechanism for rehearsing and polishing the craft of making strong Entrances and exits.

The Basics

I’ve found that four players works really well for this game as it provides a manageable tension between the playful staging chaos and the requisite focus needed for crafting a cohesive story. A location serves as a helpful initial ask-for, followed by providing each player with their own specific audience-inspired “cue” or “key” word. I’ll typically use targeted prompts to get a good variety of options, such as “a word to describe the weather,” “an occupation,” “an object you might find in the kitchen,” and “a four-syllable word.” Each “key word” is clearly assigned to a particular player and will serve as their staging impetus in the scene to follow. If another player says their word, a cued onstage player must immediately make an exit, while if the player referenced is offstage they must quickly enter the action. In this manner, players deliberately and accidentally can signal for their teammates and adjust the stage combinations accordingly. It’s important to note that due to the central premise of the game, players cannot enter or exit freely at will unless they have been appropriately signaled by another. I also tend to think of it as a cheat to call out key words as an offstage character in any circumstance other than a true last resort to assist a stranded fellow improviser.


Players are provided with the location of a national park and assigned the following key words: Player A “cloudy,” Player B “painter,” Player C “spoon,” and Player D “remarkable.” Player A and B opt to begin the scene mid-hike with the other two players standing clearly offstage.

Player A: (with excitement) “I think we’re getting close to the summit!”

Player B: (with notably less excitement) “You’ve been saying that for nearly an hour now honey! My feet are killing me.”

Player A: (taking it in their stride) “Come on! This is doing us good. We said we were going to get out more this year.”

Player B: (with renewed effort) “No, no, you’re right. We’re not going to be one of those married couples that just sits on the couch every day.”

Player A: “And look at that view!”

Player B: “OK, I’m not going to lie, this is definitely worth the effort.”

Player A: “Isn’t it remarkable!?”

Player D, having heard their word, starts to descend the trail from the opposite direction.

Player D: (pleasantly) “Good day for it. Passing on your right.”

Player A: “Oh, fellow traveler, would you mind if we bothered you for a photo?”

Player D: “No, of course not. It’s actually part of my unofficial job.” (pointing at a “ranger” badge or similar)

Player A passes the ranger their cell phone.

Player B: “I can’t imagine having this as my ‘office’ every day!”

Player D: “I know I’m lucky! I’m constantly reminded of how nature is truly a master painter.”

Player B, having heard their word, starts to pat their clothing.

Player B: “Hold that thought… and phone. Honey, I must have dropped my water bottle when we stopped a little while back. Wait for me here.”

Player B scuttles off back down the track...

The Focus

The mechanics of the game resemble many short-form scenes that involve an outside caller only here the adjustments are made internally by the improvisers themselves. Consequently, many of the tips I recommend in my caller entry here strongly apply to this setting as well, especially balancing the roles of “playful torturer” and “patient helper.”

Traps and Tips

1.) Prioritize story first. A rookie fumble with this game is to hit the stage and then immediately start using key words at a rapid fire pace to call on and off other players. This rarely works or allows for any strong balance or platform from which to build the scene. It is foreseeable that this sort of staging chaos can form the climax of the game, but if the audience doesn’t understand the world and needs of the characters, starting at this intensity won’t serve you well. I strongly recommend beginning with two players onstage for this reason as any more or less might require using a key word too quickly: for example, a player who starts alone may find themselves quickly wanting a scene partner and therefore will hastily throw out another player’s word. Invest in the given circumstances and pace the arrival of new characters in a way that will purposefully forward the story arc.

2.) Justify justify justify. It’s critical that every entrance and exit is adequately justified within the premise of the scenario or otherwise the scene can become a rather random dance of inexplicable movement. On a technical note, if you have said another player’s word – thereby inviting them to the stage – you should probably leave them a window to make the required entrance rather than just continue talking unabated: in addition to cuing staging, key words are also embedded vehicles for sharing and directing focus. Justifications are often most successful and effective when they occur alongside the triggered stage direction, but you can also stagger them throughout the action. For example, Player B could just immediately rush offstage when hearing “painter” and provide the water bottle justification or similar when they next return. Another oddly common trap is players accidentally repeating or echoing a key word when it’s offered up (perhaps in an attempt to make sure that it was heard), so that “Nature is a fine painter,” might be followed immediately by “A fine painter indeed!” Repeated words cue a chain of stage directions with Player B now leaving only to quickly return again. This can surely add to the fun, but it quickly becomes tiresome if players fall into the trap of making this choice repeatedly and inadvertently. Such playful torture moves need to be patiently earned.

3.) Focus on relationships. Thinking of Key Word as largely a relationship game helps steer the action in a fruitful direction. It’s traditional for players to only assume one character each so that we see the four personae in different combinations that allow us to discover their different faces and facets. Assuming a new role for every entrance in many ways diffuses the innate challenge of the structure (although you could argue that it replaces it with another). Similar to the related game Entrances and Exits, it’s helpful to at least initially strive for two-player vignettes as these allow some real space to develop and explore relationship energies and nuances. When Player B leaves we may now learn that Player A and the ranger have some heretofore unknown history or agenda, for example. As the scene finds its footing, it can be helpful to mix up the character combinations as much as logically possible.

4.) Use your words strategically. There are some best practices in terms of how to most effectively use the assigned key words. In addition to not saying your own word and avoiding needlessly repeating a word when it appears in the dialogue (as mentioned above) I would also recommend avoiding using derivatives or substantial parts of the four assigned cues. If the word is “cloudy” and someone ways “clouds” or “cloudiest” it’s likely to cause confusion for the audience and players alike in a fashion that isn’t adding any real value to the scene. There can also be a tendency to become or have in possession your “word” which I find more often that not creates rather uninteresting games. If Player B becomes the “painter” or Player C walks around the whole scene holding a “spoon” they often are inhibited in terms of how they can deeply contribute to the action. By the end of the scene it’s effective to make sure everyone’s key word has been uttered at least once so that every character has a chance to play the central dynamic and no player is left offstage (or onstage for that matter) for the scene’s duration. This will prove difficult if players cannot remember each other’s words so I’ll usually have the team repeat them all once or twice before the scene begins. No, seriously, repeat all the words in unison. Trust me!

In Performance

While there is a really strong and clear handle on this scene I’ve found that Key Word is also a great vehicle for developing good stories when players understand how to gently ramp up the central dynamic. If you only focus on moving players on and off stage you will likely have little more than a frenetic parlor game; when you invest in purposeful characters and relationships and then add some mischief with the cue words, on the other hand, your chances of crafting a robust scene improve dramatically.

There’s a related version of this game – I call it Key Sound – where players are each assigned a unique sound effect from the booth. These noises (such as a doorbell, siren, hammer or bird screech…) should be previewed for the audience and improvisers. During the scene when the technical improviser uses these established sounds the pertinent improviser must justify an entrance or exit. The mechanics are very similar to Key Word although the booth now holds the primary responsibility of shaping and pacing the action. While this changes the source of the torture, a similar brand of fun awaits.

Cheers, David Charles.
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Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Entrances

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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