I came across this exercise during my Spolin/Forsberg training in Chicago. You can shift the central focus to other facets of the scene, but when it centers around the Environment, Cooperation/Noncooperation Scene provides a useful tool for enriching the ways that our theatrical world can influence the stage action.
Players work in small teams and may either take turns performing in front of the group or all work at the same time while scattered across the workshop space. A physical task is assigned – such as painting a house – and players begin the scene while engaged in the activity. At random intervals a caller announces “Cooperation” or “Noncooperation.” When “Cooperation” is the declared dynamic the world and environment work in tandem with the goals and intents of the players: it’s a pleasant day for working outside, the ladder goes up with ease, the paint is the perfect consistency… When the caller offers “Noncooperation” the environment and scenic elements begin to thwart or work in opposition to the players: the sprinkler system accidentally goes off, a squirrel steals one of the paint brushes, there isn’t enough paint to cover the intended surface… The caller continues shifting the environment energy back and forth until the scene finds a conclusion.
Players are assembling an IKEA bookshelf in their living room. The scene typically begins in a state of cooperation.
Player A: (dragging in a large box) “We were so lucky to get the last unit in the store! This is going to look great beside the couch.”
Player B: “I’ve got the box cutter right here. Let’s open this baby!”
Player C: “And I’m recording the best roommates ever on my phone as they make our apartment a home!”
Player A: (putting down the box carefully) “Okay, you should be able to just slice the tape on the end there and we can slide out the pieces…”
Player B: (after a few failed attempts) “The cutter seems a little dull, let me give that another try.”
Player A: “Careful! You’re tearing up the box. Don’t cut the shelves…”
Player C: “That box looks awfully long. Did anyone measure the shelves beforehand?”
Player A: “I just assumed… I can’t seem to find the tape measure. I thought I put it by the television.”
Player B: (still working to open the box) “Sorry, I’m making a bit of a mess of this…”
Player A: (feeling their back pocket) “Ha! I had it on me all the time…!”
This game works most effectively when there is a significant task involved that requires the active and sustained participation of all the characters. If the activity is too simple or nonspecific (moving generic boxes) it’s more difficult to organically discover environmental challenges and boons.
Traps and Tips
1.) Craft a detailed environment. It’s fundamentally taxing to create a series of environmental challenges if the scene exists in a vague or poorly constructed physical world. Spend the opening moments of the scene giving close attention to the weather, scenery, furnishing and hand props available. The more you invest early in these elements of the scene, the more you will be able to draw upon as the caller moves you back and forth between the two defining dynamics. Be particularly wary of “magical” props that just appear and disappear at will: make sure each needed item has a home on stage as this will, in turn, create other furniture pieces and stage geography.
2.) Commit to the action. The scene quickly loses its spark and momentum if characters aren’t strongly committed to achieving the stated goal together. In this environmental version of the exercise it’s helpful to note that it is the greater world that offers up seemingly random obstacles and problems and not the characters themselves. The characters should remain “all in” and have a vested stake in completing the goal at hand. In addition to all the physicality and pantomimic lessons the exercise holds, this also models the helpful practice of finding conflict outside of the embodied relationships in a manner that allows characters to work as allies rather than rivals. If characters truly give up (as opposed to stepping back from the task for a few moments in frustration) the scene will often devolve into a series of negotiations or arguments.
3.) Play each others’ games. There can be a temptation for individuals to scattershot a series of obstacles and solutions rather than acknowledging and building on the ideas of their peers. As the caller switches between the two states of “cooperation” and “noncooperation” make sure you are leaving room for the current player in focus to make the first justification and look for ways to truly embrace and add to this choice and energy. Yes, it’s likely you’ll also want to complicate or invert any specific dynamics that you have going as well, but be careful that characters aren’t merely playing their own self-contained games and dynamics. If Player B is struggling to open the box, join in and let this idea have some time and focus to develop, trusting that there is plenty of room in the scene for new ideas to emerge later.
4.) Gently escalate the challenges. This exercise offers some helpful lessons in terms of pacing obstacles. If you leap to an almost impossible disaster early in the scene – such as the roof of the apartment suddenly blowing away in a tornado – you might be faced with an insurmountable problem when the world begins to cooperate once more. That being said, you do want to enjoy the risk of the scene as well, and it’s equally problematic if the obstacles never progress beyond the realm of hangnails and stubbed toes. If you’re familiar with the concept of the curve of absurdity it provides an excellent approach for the mechanics of the scene, starting with a sense of grounded reality and then allowing the problems to become more significant and perhaps extreme as the scene draws to a close: a tornado suddenly sweeping away the perfectly constructed bookcase while leaving the rest of the apartment and roommates untouched could serve as a delightful button!
If you struggle with “talking heads” or ill-defined locations, this exercise beautifully encourages paying closer attention to the ways we interact with our environments. It’s also fun to explore all the stories that can emerge when your primary focus is actually a common activity or task.
If you are facilitating this exercise and want some general caller pointers, go here. It can be tricky to strategically coach multiple explorations occurring at the same time but I’ve found if I’m watching with soft focus I can get a general feel when the majority of scenes are ready for an inversion.
Connected Concept: Environment