Game Library: “Naïve Expert”

In addition to providing an opportunity to work on your Expert skills, confidence and language, Naive Expert is a more seldom played endowment game (at least in my current improv circles) and so more readily retains a sense of freshness and novelty.

The Basics

One member of the team (the “expert’) leaves the space and an area of expertise is obtained from the audience that might piece together several disparate or unexpected elements, such as Arctic submarine maintenance. Upon the expert’s return the remaining improvisers host a talk show focusing on the guest of honor and their field of study. Through gentle clues, leading questions and endowing, the hosts endeavor to slowly reveal to the expert the unknown ingredients. Supporting teammates may also fill in other roles such as audience members, stage management or show staff. By the end of the scene the guest should proudly announce their area of expertise (whether or not they “know” what it is) and the interview show concludes.


While Player A is out of the space and cannot hear the rest of the team assembles the expertise of “high school lunch nutritionist” from the audience. Player B and C assume the roles of co-anchors as Player A returns to the space while music plays and the lights come up…

Player B: “And welcome back to Early Morning Chats!”

Player C: “We’re sooo excited to have our next guest, the formidable Dr. Moon, joining us on the couch! Let’s give them an ‘Early Morning’ welcome!”

Player A has entered and acknowledges the audience as they take a seat on the couch.

Player A: “It’s such an honor to be here with you both, Noriko and Aki! I’m excited to jump right in and dispel any of those nagging myths…”

Player B: “I imagine you are very pro-jumping in your line of work!”

Player A: “Well yes, you know what they say: you’ve got to keep active to stay active…”

Player C: “Such timely advice, no matter where you are in life.”

Player A: “Indeed. The young, the old, teenagers…”

Player C: “Who you clearly focus on in your current line of work.”

Player B: (miming a book) “As we can see here in your new book…”

Player A: “Why thanks for bringing that up. Yes, adolescents can experience particular challenges…”

The Focus

As is the case with most endowment games the explicit intent is to help the “expert” determine and state the hidden subject by the end of the scene. But, that being said, successfully endowing the missing information is really only one facet of the scene and you can have a highly engaging and entertaining offering that doesn’t culminate in “victory.” Enjoy the struggle of the chase, lean into strong characters and relationships, and explore the inherent story of the expertise (or the close approximation thereof).

Traps and Tips

1.) Avoid all “buzz” words. A good rule of thumb for all endowment games is that the endowers (those with the hidden knowledge) should not explicitly say or do any of the critical elements that would reveal the hidden information. This is the equivalent of telling or using parallel actions as opposed to complementary actions that serve as the bedrock of the dynamic. Any significant piece of the puzzle should be uttered first by the endowee or the expert in this particular case. (I generally shy away from even repeating key words after they have been guessed by the expert as this can similarly puncture some of the magic of the game’s climax). In our “high school lunch nutritionist” example above those four words are immediately off limits, and I’d also avoid anything that is just one remove away, such as teenager, education, food and health. You are more likely to fall into this trap if your focus is solely on getting them to “guess” the correct answer quickly, as opposed to enjoying the potentially meandering process of interviewing the expert and crafting a playful scene. Puns and word play often (rightly) feature heavily in these games, but also be careful of anything that is so obvious there could only be one possible response.

2.) Experts, practice bravery. It’s difficult not to think of these scenes as “guessing games” and this function certainly is a part of the mix, but if they feel like “guessing games” then you might be aiming too low in terms of entertainment value. Experts need to present themselves as experts, with the requisite bravery, language and attack. It’s important to pace your specificity so as not to paint everyone prematurely into a corner – “Hello, I’m an expert on the planet Mars and nothing else!” – but shuffling around in a sea of vagueness doesn’t help either – “I’m glad I could be here to talk about things and stuff!” Make brave assumptions and assertions. Answers that include one or two strong details provide potential doorways for your partners, so don’t be afraid to offer up the random specifics that jump to mind. Don’t think of every response as an attempt at solving the entire riddle at hand or you’ll likely hamstring yourself. Rather, listen closely to the way the hosts phrase their remarks and react or free associate with those particular elements. If a line of answers is clearly thwarting and not assisting, also bravely move on and explore a different theme or idea.

3.) Interviewers, seek connections. There can certainly be considerable pressure on the interviewers to keep the scene moving so I like that this frame easily houses two or more co-hosts that can share this work and thrill! Avoid buckshot questioning that just throws out one clue after another in a disparate (and possibly desperate) sense. I strongly prefer an approach that always seeks to utilize something that the expert has just said (or recently offered) hence the import that experts routinely use specific language. This approach is more skillful and nuanced, requiring flexibility to follow unexpected pathways that pop up. In the above example, “jumping” led to “active” which led to different demographics and “teenagers” which then, hopefully will get us to “high school.” This is a more exciting and dangerous path than just pushing the expert with “So, I hear you have three teenagers at home.” The connection approach is also much more likely to enable a story of sorts which adds so much to the scene. Remember to avoid using buzz words but be sure to make it very clear when the expert has discovered an important word or element: getting them to repeat it several times generally works well. Other pet peeves in this and most endowment games include a “fill in the blank” approach: “When I was seventeen, I spent most of my day in…” Similarly, a charades or “sounds like” approach feels a little unnecessarily cheap as well and degrades the talk show frame.

4.) Accept everything. It might go without saying but just in case it doesn’t it’s really critical in these endowment games to have an attitude of accepting everything as best you can. If the expert offers up something completely unexpected is there a way to weave that towards your desired outcome rather than just dismissing it out of hand? If the interviewers are using leading questions that push you deeper into the unknown, embrace the risk and forge ahead trusting that there is likely (hopefully) some method to the madness. The game revolves around determining an absurd subject so it’s highly likely that there will be some absurd or opaque moves. If players begin to judge or assess their partners’ choices rather than reacting to them with confidence, the game will lose much of its charm.

5.) Sell the ending. I allude to this above but ultimately it doesn’t really matter if you get it exactly right at the end of the scene. It does matter that you build to and celebrate a bold finish. Even if the expert thinks that they have no clue as to the specifics of their field, they should celebrate and sell the little that they do know. Often in a short-form venue, the game may be timed to add an element of danger and stakes. It can serve to fudge that time a little if the team members are in sight of the solution, but I’ve seen endowment games fizzle when a well-intended host is clearly over generous in a way that just lets the scene stumble forward relentlessly. Commit to the ending, sell it joyfully, let the audience revel in how close or far you were in your estimation, and celebrate the journey regardless of the outcome.

In Performance

Nearly all of the strategies I’ve outlined above can be relaxed a little if the action hits a wall. If the scene is limping into its final phases without any headway, committing relentlessly to opaque clues will rarely appeal to the audience nor set the players up for joy. Games of this ilk are often audience favorites; there is something innately delightful about being in the know and seeing someone else fight to figure out details that are now so obvious to you! Depending on the time available and the experience level of the players, adjust the severity of the ask-for challenge too. Just as a truly impossible expertise might implode, a ridiculously easy target is unlikely to land well either if the expert figures it out in thirty seconds.

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Experts

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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