Game Library: “Game Lab”

While this is currently a seldom-played offering at Sak Comedy Lab where I spend most weekends improvising, the inventive conceit behind Game Lab very much thrives in our Gorilla Theatre show where players have a penchant for taking familiar short-form offerings and retooling them with a new focus or finesse. I first encountered this conceit during my high school improv days but can’t for the life of me can’t recall what we called it back then! If you’re struggling to maintain an air of Freshness in your work, Game Lab offers a loose frame to break away from the grind of over-played standards.

The Basics

I’ve primarily experienced this game as a dueling dynamic between two teams but there is no reason it couldn’t be gently repurposed to serve as a stand-alone game. In the competitive version the “captains” of each team serve as the facilitators and definers. Captain A obtains an original non-existent game title from the audience, such as “People in Transit.” This captain, perhaps with some brainstorming assistance from their teammates, then improvises the basic rules of the named game: “In People in Transit the team must provide a scene in which characters must always be in or on some form of public transportation…” Team B is now charged with playing this unique improv game for the first time while honoring the boundaries as they have been outlined. The process is then typically repeated with Captain B now returning the “favor” and acquiring a new game title that inspires an accompanying improvised definition.


These two game examples are drawn from two performances I actually still faintly remember many years later...

“Rambo meets Rapunzel” was defined as a fish out of water type scene where the team acquires a well-known fairy tale and a character from a different world entirely that wouldn’t appear in that story or timeline. The team must then craft an original scene that brings these two disparate worlds together. This format had such a unique conceit that I sometimes include it in my Improv I class as as an exercise in constructing narrative and breaking routines.

“Three Bears in the Woods” requires my slippery New Zealand dialect for its definition as in kiwi English “bear,” “beer” and “bare” are all essentially homonyms. The rules of the scene mandated that by the end of the scene three conditions had to be met: one character had to be attacked by a “bear,” another needed to be drinking a “beer,” and the third needed to be naked or “bare.” And all of this needed to transpire, as per the title, in the woods. This resulted in a joyfully silly scene, but perhaps predictably has not been added to my repertoire!

The Focus

There is an extremely unpredictable hit/miss ratio with the games constructed in this manner, and this really is the focus. There are no “guaranteed” bits that have been inherited, or experiences in rehearsal to tap into. Players must truly just attack the scenes as scenes and determine the best path forward as a team. This, in fact, should be how we approach all our work as improvisers, but if you’re playing similar games, scenes or tropes again and again, night after night, this sense of true danger may well have subsided.

Traps and Tips

As essentially any game or dynamic can emerge from this prompt, I’ll focus my coaching on the role of the captain or game “definer” as this is a slightly peculiar function that will make or break the experience.

1.) Honor the title. Enjoy the word association component of the game and really use the audience elicited title as your launching point. (To this end it can be fun to get two or three random words from different audience members so that the resulting game title is truly original.) It’s joyful to see the author’s thought process, so don’t be afraid to voice some possibilities before cementing your final parameters. I’ve seen this process framed as “Oh, yes, I know that game…” which adds a fun energy as well, as if the captain is actually recalling a game from deep within the improv archives. The process of coming up with the definition can often be as entertaining and exciting as the game that follows, so don’t under utilize this part of the premise.

2.) Use what you know. If the thought of coming up with a completely original game overwhelms you, it can prove helpful to initially draw upon a short-form game or handle that is within your lexicon. People in Transit might recall a “move to talk” dynamic, for example, that you can then shake up. The second part of that statement – “that you ca shake up” – is critical as you don’t want to just assign the new title to an old game as that throws away the risk and the promise. But also freely draw upon what you know as a starting point, especially what is jolted front of mind when you heard the new game title for the first time. Our definitions can certainly benefit from accepting obvious connections and inspirations just as we would within our onstage scenes.

3.) Use what the team knows. Give the team a sound base from which to play. Generally, a definition that allows room for scenic exploration will prove more flexible and “solvable” than a series of instructions that thwart or prevent characters in action: “Each character must face a different direction and is not allowed to talk to or reference anyone else on stage…” As is the case with caller functions, while it appears the captain is providing insurmountable odds, in reality they should be offering delightful challenges and enticing obstacles. Throwing in a musical component for a team that loves singing, for example, will add value in a way that it wouldn’t for a team that struggles to hold a tune on top of all the other restrictions.

4.) And one more thing… Invariably there will be a moment in the definition that the captain will be tempted to add just one more hoop. Almost without exception this final addition tends to overwhelm and stifle any chance of “success.” If you’ve crafted two or three guidelines or facets, that’s typically more than enough. Hastily added “last thoughts,” in my experience, nearly always have a pimping energy or provide the final straw that will break the improvising camel’s back: “And one more thing… everyone has to spend the whole scene crawling on the floor,” “…there are no humans in the scene,” or “…the entire scene happens in reverse.” It’s certainly the spirit of the game to provide rules with an air of mischievousness, but a weighty final adjustment that isn’t in keeping with the tone of the prior elements often scuttles the fledgling scene.

In performance

Few games are more likely to shock your out of your improv rut than Game Lab! So much rides on the definition so it’s worth your time to practice this particular skill before making this a public experiment.

Cheers, David Charles.
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Photo Credit: Scott Cook
© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Freshness

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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