Several of the long-form formats I’ve devised for my current campus troupe utilize an almost Brechtian device in which scenes are briefly introduced by another player who pauses the prior action with the ringing of a bell. This tradition evolved for numerous reasons – primarily to help jumpstart scenes with a clear and concise gift – and has become a unique and defining characteristic of my work in this academic venue. Bell’s Kitchen emerged as a workshop exercise to polish this technique of pitching dynamic Initiations that can quickly launch scenes into promising territory. I can’t take credit for the delightfully “punny” name, although unfortunately I can no longer recall which long-since-graduated troupe member first coined it.
Players are randomly divided into two teams which form parallel lines facing each other. The first player from each line steps forward into the battle arena and stands in front of two bells placed on small blocks or stools. A caller provides an inspiring ask-for, such as “parents,” “beach,” or “codependence.” Players alternate ringing their bell and then providing an original narrative lead-in for a scene that is explicitly connected to the provided suggestion. The two competing players continue offering new possibilities back and forth until one of them commits an infraction (such as needlessly stalling, repeating the essence of a prior narration, or failing to clearly use the ask-for in question.) The triumphant player earns one point for their team and both competitors then rejoin the end of their line so that two more teammates can enter “Bell’s Kitchen…”
Player A and B step forward representing their two teams; the caller provides the category of “Siblings” and the players start ringing in…
Player A: “Siblings, Mark and Kylen, fight over the television remote…”
Player B: “Katherine doesn’t expect to see her older sister Cailin when she’s called to the principal’s office…”
Player A: “At the hospital, Brian sees his baby brother through the glass for the very first time…”
Player B: “Twins Alex and Lauren get radically different looks at the mall salon…”
Player A: “Things go awry between siblings Travis and Pete when there is only one slice of pizza left in the box…”
Take risks, seek specificity and embrace the need to ring the bell before you have an idea formulated. Often the most intriguing ideas bubble up from “nothing” once players have expended those concepts that were pre-loaded or familiar.
Traps and Tips
1.) Enjoy the competitive element but keep it in check. While the competitive frame adds playfulness and stakes, be mindful that it doesn’t warp the larger intent, namely to encourage brave and instinctual scenic frames. If someone is new to the exercise by all means give them a re-start or a do over if they fumble right out of the gate so that they have a chance to find their footing. The greater goal is to nurture a skill set not to thwart growth.
2.) Use prompts pertinent to your peculiar needs. I generally rotate between relationships, locations and theme words when we explore this exercise as these are all elements that we use frequently as sources of inspiration in our long-form pieces (and that we need to rehearse defining with nuance and variety.) You could certainly also brainstorm genre-specific initiations, (song) titles, or character objectives… The frame can easily accommodate a wide array of different inspirations.
3.) Establish infraction criteria (and apply them with playful joy.) Stalling or struggling to verbalize an offer quickly often provides the most obvious cause for elimination, but depending on your greater goals you can also call out verbosity, lack of clarity, failure to obviously use the prompt and the like… As players become more confident and experienced we sometimes introduce additional criteria just to keep the game moving, such as no character name repeats or no using the prompt in the same way or with the same energy as a prior bell.
4.) Encourage both strong content and form. The excitement of this game can tend to manifest itself in rather frenetic deliveries that would be problematic in front of an audience. This is of particular concern in my campus work as this narrative introduction device is used as is onstage. To this end I encourage players to deliver their ideas – no matter how odd they may become – with confidence and poise. The gift of these initiations will largely be lost if the intended players (and audience) are unable to hear and comprehend the nuances of the speaker’s intent. And it’s also just good practice to really sell your ideas regardless of how well they are formed when they emerge.
Played with carefree attack this exercise also serves as a helpful reminder that one suggestion (especially those that might feel stale or overdone) can inspire an almost endless multitude of unique starting points. This improv drill can also easily be adjusted to explore second or third steps in a scenic progression by having two players present a “first scene” and then having other members of the ensemble belling in possibilities for the next iteration. Similarly, rather than narrating the first move you could certainly adapt the game to involve delivered first lines (as opposed to narrated descriptions) that established the given circumstance through the use of character-based dialogue: “Mark, mum said it’s my turn to get to choose what we watch. Stop hogging the remote…”
Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr
Connected Concept: Initiation