“H” is for “Heighten”

“…faced with a conflict which is too weak and uninteresting, our creativity will not be stimulated.”

Augusto Boal, The Rainbow of Desire. Trans. Adrian Jackson. London: Routledge, 1995. p.60


Heightening is such a pervasive and all-encompassing term that it can be a little tricky to define. To Heighten is to build, to add volume or attention, to increase interest and momentum, or to elevate the emotional consequences. Without heightening many a scene would likely limp along anemically, the characters will fail to evolve or deepen, and the potential for action is likely to drown in an ocean of indistinguishable possibility. When we heighten elements of a scene as improvisers we make them important, memorable and worthy of further investigation. When we fail to do so, we can experience scene work that never really seems to go anywhere or mean anything. Yes, it’s critical to make offers as players, but it is equally important that we make these choices count.


Player A stumbles into the meeting already in progress, carrying their laptop under their arm.

Player A: “I really appreciate your patience this morning. I had a minor disaster at home and then traffic was…”

As Player A scrambles to set up, Player B gently interrupts…

Player B: “Kaitlyn, I’m not sure if you’ve met Ms. Wright from the head office.”

Player A: (now a little more frazzled, offering their hand) “Oh, no. We’ve emailed a lot but this is the first time I’ve had the pleasure…”

Player C: (while shaking A’s hand) “It’s nice to put a face to the name!”

Player A: (struggling to turn on their laptop) “And you! Sorry, this doesn’t seem to want to boot up…”

Player C: “And our CFO apologizes that they are unable to attend in person but we have them set up via video conference…”

Player D waves as if behind a large monitor.

Player D: “We’re starting a little late so we’ll need to jump right into this.”

Player A: “Of course. My coffee seems to have spilled on my computer case!”

Player B: “So, we’re just waiting on you Kaitlyn…”

Taking Heightening to New Heights

1.) It usually starts with someone else. Of course you can heighten your own game and character choices but I would contend that heightening tends to prove more engaging and successful when you build off someone else’s instinct or offer. A game or energy starts to crackle when it emerges between the players and each of them assumes some ownership and responsibility for keeping the momentum building. When we pitch and play our own games in isolation they can tend to become solipsistic and ineffectual, existing as more of an extension of our character than a manifestation of a greater story arc. While this character-driven boldness is certainly a skill worth fostering as well, the technique of heightening is more likely to take hold when it is shared: Player B has seen that Player A is frazzled and adds to that dynamic. Player A reflects that back and the idea is furthered by C and then D. What was initially an individual choice is now a collective dynamic. Just keep in mind that as you explore this newfound direction that…

2.) It’s about small steps. There can be a temptation that once an energy or choice has been recognized and elevated for players to sprint to the finish line with abandon. After all, it’s great fun when you know where the scene is heading! When you’re in the “know” and can identify the central dynamic it requires some paced self control not to explode the conceit. Heightening is most helpfully considered as a process rather than a destination (in keeping with the world of improv in general.) If Kaitlyn, in the example above, is completely overwhelmed in one or two moves (and, frankly, the illustration may be getting close to that in its pursuit of clarity) the scene can struggle to grow beyond the first obvious initiation. To knowingly slow down the trajectory consider that…

3.) It doesn’t have to be a straight line. As we look to heighten scenic elements and games it can prove helpful to remember that our focus needn’t be exclusive. If every subsequent move heightens the same idea it is foreseeable that the story might quickly run out of steam or interest. We can continue the journey of frazzled Kaitlyn while also tending to other facets of the scene. What are some of the other relationships and dynamics in the board room? Are there details about the physical location that will further support the action? Are there subplots or side games that we can also pitch and invest in as Kaitlyn sets up her computer? If you’re playing in a long-form modality this more expansive (but deliberate) approach also sets up richer details that may resurface or become reincorporated later in the action. Heightening needn’t mean that we are only working on one dynamic at the exclusion of all other scenic considerations or that we can’t step away from a dynamic for a while knowing that we’ll return to it with added gusto. This also gives a little creative room because…

4.) It’s not just more of the same. While heightening will often include a mirroring or parallel energy – “what is happening to our protagonist Kaitlyn and how can we do more of it?” – merely replicating prior choices will only move the engine so far along the train tracks. Parallels provide the “yes” of accepting but there is still ample room for thoughtful “ands.” Heightening is not merely more of the same but, rather, enables games or energies to evolve as the scenic needs and opportunities dictate. Moves or steps should be filtered through the unique lenses and traits of your character if for no other reason than to invite new ways of developing the same dynamic. What are some other aspects of Kaitlyn’s life or day that can be pulled into play as well as the pending presentation? If we all heighten in exactly the same manner, the game will quickly become stale and predictable. The fun is so often in the delight of discovering how we can heighten in our own unique way while keeping in mind…

5.) It’s not purely an intellectual affair. Heightening, especially when it takes on the guise of a game, can become a rather heady experience if we are not careful. In our efforts to calculate that next iteration or dynamic shift we can easily find ourselves retreating away from the embodied action. Effective heightening should have an emotional component: why do we care about this particular game or the developing situation if we are not vested in any of the characters or their plights? If a character, such as Kaitlyn, emerges as the subject of the game, it’s important that we give them room to explore an emotional journey as we construct our edifices around them. (This is yet another reason to remember that not every contribution needs to be a “move” so that there is ample room for reactions.) When the characters’ emotional state or desires are elevated alongside the scenic patterns we’re more likely to experience a noteworthy journey. Without this emotional investment, heightening can feel like it’s a great dynamic that ultimately leads nowhere. As improvisers we might get away with this once or twice in a performance, but an evening of such moments will quickly grow anticlimactic. Which brings me to my…

Final Thought

I can have a tendency to think of heightening as a tool used primarily within a scene, but it’s helpful to remember that games, energies, character foibles and story tensions can all be heightened over the more luxurious course of an entire performance arc or long-form piece. Recognizing the gifts provided by our scene partners and inviting them to continue along these dynamic paths through our reflections and reactions provides one of the fundamental building blocks of improvisational play.

Related Entries: Accepting, Extending, Game of the Scene Antonyms: Commenting, Deadpan Synonyms: Stakes, Urgency

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Heightening Circle

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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