Game Library: “Identity Circle”

This exercise has become a right of passage of sorts for my campus troupe providing members with an opportunity to share and model empathy and vulnerability. I wouldn’t consider Identity Circle as particularly appropriate for younger players or ensembles that haven’t built an initial foundation of trust – Neighbors offers a more light-hearted option for these situations – but conducted with care this experience can initiate important conversations and discoveries.

The Basics

The ensemble forms a circle. It is important that players understand the tonality and intention of the experience that is about to take place and that nobody is expected to share or reveal anything that makes them uncomfortable or nervous. If you are working in an environment in which you are a mandatory reporter. it is important to remind participants of this function as occasionally intense narratives are revealed. Players are invited to randomly step into the circle and make statements that they hold as true and important. Upon the completion of each statement, other players who identify with the proffered statement may then also take a step into the circle to mark this shared experience or belief. After a moment, players then return to the periphery until a new volunteer steps forward to make a statement.


Players have formed a circle and understand the conceit and tone of the exercise.

Player A: (stepping forward) “I am an only child.”

Several other players step forward to indicate that they connect to this statement. After a moment, they all return to the greater circle.

Player B: (stepping forward) “I don’t have a passport.”

Several other players step forward to indicate that they connect to this statement. After a moment, they all return to the greater circle.

Player C: (stepping forward) “I’m afraid of heights…”

The Focus

Played gently and with awareness this game can reveal connections, acknowledge differences and recommit players to the ensemble. Played carelessly or hurriedly it might isolate, trigger or alienate group members. The experience both builds trust but also requires that a certain level of trust is already in place. If the exercise is to encourage and model Inclusiveness it needs to be introduced and guided with attention and care. When I play this with my campus troupe there are always improvisers present who are familiar with the spirit and purpose of the game and are able to illustrate the intent by providing help as needed if the material proves challenging or potentially harmful. If everyone is new to the game, I would strongly recommend taking extra time with the set up and preamble.

Traps and Tips

1.) Clearly state the game’s purpose. I know of few other games that equally allow players to remove their social facades and honestly share their lives, fears and passions with each other. It’s important that everyone is in agreement that what is shared in this moment and the circle remains in this space and does not find its way into casual conversations outside the space (especially with others who weren’t in attendance or in any manner that might resemble gossip.) This contextualization can suggest that the exercise will be morose or needlessly bleak, which has not been my experience as a sense of joy or comradery also permeates the event; but, it would be fair to say that as the exercise unfolds that there are often serious and vulnerable revelations and it’s important to prepare the ensemble for this eventuality. At its core, Identity Circle allows the group to safely share what connects and also isolates members.

2.) Gently establish and monitor the tone. While moments of joyful laughter are not uncommon, generally the exercise occurs with a slightly more reverend tone. It isn’t in the spirit of the experience for players to comment on the choices or statements of others with looks of judgment or side chatter. Such behavior will quickly undermine the overall mood needed for the game to offer an honest and meaningful experience. Generally, the exercise should take place in silence; if you are facilitating and hold a position that is unequal to your fellow participants (as is the case when I facilitate this as a professor with my students) it can prove helpful to also have a soft focus so that players don’t feel needlessly observed or scrutinized. I do think it’s important not to merely observe, however, but to also contribute and participate if for no other reason than hopefully dismantling or subverting this perceived power imbalance.

3.) Discourage any coercive behaviors. It’s critical that players do not feel coerced during this activity. If players become uncomfortable, they should feel welcome to step away from the circle, perhaps to return at a later time, or perhaps not. It’s important that players step forward and share facets of their lives or identities that they are comfortable sharing – this threshold will likely vary markedly from player to player and from ensemble to ensemble. Statements should not be used to figuratively or literally out others in the circle or mine for biographical information that fellow players do not want to share. To this end, it’s important for the facilitator to note that players need not step into the circle in response to any statements that cause them distress or discomfort (and players should not signal or gesture to others to do so.) Participants should also feel free to internally modify statements in any fashion that best suits them. If someone shares “I am an only child” and someone else feels so estranged from their sibling that they feel like an only child, then it is more than appropriate for them to take a step forward. No one need (or should) serve as the arbitrator of others’ truths.

4.) Allow the rhythms of the exercise to emerge organically. This may be more of an issue when you have improvisers in your group who have experienced Identity Circle before, but sometimes there can be a tendency for “returners” to push the experience too quickly into heavier material that can alienate those who are taking their first steps. While, as noted above, no-one should be coerced to share if they do not wish to do so, the likelihood that more reserved or introverted members will feel inclined to participate declines precipitously if you do not allow sufficient time for some simpler (or even trivial) statements: the activity undoubtedly benefits from some room for “I love dogs” and “My favorite color is red.” The ensemble needs to find its footing and sense that trust is present and growing before embarking into more vulnerable terrain. Once the exercise has been established it can then be helpful to have “returners” who understand the ebbs and flow of the game offer up slightly more personal statements if the exercise has floated on the surface for a problematically long amount of time.

5.) Be prepared for residual and a slow transition. With a group of sixteen to eighteen this exercise will often take 45 minutes to an hour or more, and it doesn’t lend well to then suddenly plunging into scene work or other rehearsal business afterwards. It can prove difficult to find an “out” as some players find the dynamic liberating and may subsequently have a lot of import to contribute. Side-coaching should be sparse and exclusively structural (if used at all) but I’ve found sharing a statement to the effect of “I feel ready to conclude this game in another 2 minutes” or similar is a gentle way of sounding out the needs of the group while nudging them to an ending if it’s appropriate or needed. It’s not unlikely that some (or many) players might be a little stirred and in need of some support, or space, or both. I’m often struck by some rather intense themes of isolation and loneliness that tend to emerge, for example, and it’s not really appropriate nor healthy to unlock these feelings and then carelessly release everyone back into their private bubbles. I’ll program this at the end of a rehearsal for that reason, allowing for sufficient down time to tend to those who need some extra attention. Also be aware that you may not be the person someone wants to connect to in this moment and that’s more than okay.

In performance

I fear that this description and coaching suggestions might make this game feel a bit dark or risky so I think it’s important to note that my company actively requests it now that it has become a known part of our annual training tradition. Yes, it certainly has sad or intense moments, but it can also prove affirming, joyful and cathartic. In this sense it is very much allied with improv traditions in the healing arts such as Playback Theatre and Sociodrama. I would just caution that if this is new territory for you as a facilitator or troupe that you exert care and thoughtfulness as the experience often proves surprisingly vulnerable and raw.

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

Connected Concept: Inclusiveness

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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