Here’s a helpful exercise, Heightening Circle, to promote small and connected steps as we explore the concept of Heightening.
As the title suggests, players form a circle and one player volunteers to go first. This player offers up a simple sentence, often a personal brag or observation, such as “I bake great cookies.” The game now moves around the circle with each sequential contributor heightening the dynamic a little, so the second player might offer “I bake great organic cookies.” This process of gentle amplification continues until the exercise reaches a natural conclusion. The process can then be repeated with a new prompt as needed to make sure everyone in the group has an opportunity to participate at least once.
Player A: “I got a good night’s sleep.”
Player B: “I got a good restful night’s sleep.”
Player C: “I got an uninterrupted and rejuvenating night’s sleep.”
Player D: “My children slept in late and I got a great uninterrupted night’s sleep…”
I like how the stripped-down focus of this exercise allows players to consider the connection and magnitude of their additions. It can result in some understandable headiness but it’s a good opportunity to rehearse the critical skill sets involved in recognizing and joining improv games.
Traps and Tips
1.) Work in the same direction. As you make your way around the circle, be sure that players are all building the narrative in the same direction. The first comment might be intended as complimentary or self-deprecating, but as is typically the case when heightening and launching scenic games, it’s actually the second and third moves that are most critical. If the second player decides to amplify the bragging quality of the initial statement, when this is echoed by the third then the trajectory of the game has now been set. Be wary that players don’t accidentally invert or negate these paths as they become clear. This heightening concept can also apply to different facets of the statement that are viewed as fruitful for investigation – what kind of cookies do you bake, which superlatives best describe your efforts, who has bestowed accolades on your culinary creations? This specific focus may shift and evolve as the narrative expands and morphs (although it can prove helpful to play in one field at a time.)
2.) Leave room for those that follow. It can be helpful as you play the exercise to keep in mind the improvisers that will follow and to consciously leave room for their musings as well. This can certainly become more difficult as the build nears its zenith, but if the first move goes from “good night’s sleep” to “the best night’s sleep of my life” then we may already only be one or two moves away from the natural conclusion. On a simple level, this patient and generous approach requires careful listening and not pre-determining your offer well before the narrative gets to you in the circle. In the spirit of taking small steps, look for the most inspiring clue in the player who has just gone. If the ensemble is clearly suffering from pre-planning, you can thwart this trend by having players throw the focus randomly across the circle to another improviser after each new contribution.
3.) Prioritize the journey. I think it’s a fun challenge and in the spirit of the exercise to see just how many steps you can playfully accomplish based on each new starting point. It can prove difficult to keep our competitive spirits at bay, and this game resembles one-upping and one-downing games where this unchecked instinct is equally problematic. Keep the focus on playing together towards a common goal rather than on any one individual’s success or cleverness. Look for the subtle or modest move rather than the seemingly impressive leap. Even in my example above, pacing the game can feel like a bit of a struggle which is exactly why this exercise is worthy of some attention.
Do your best to keep out of your head and in the space so that each offer clearly demonstrates a close connection to those before. And don’t be afraid to add simple, small and obvious heightening steps!
Connected Concept: Heighten