This classic short-form game is clearly dated a little by it’s very title, Freeze Frame – you may have seen or played similar variants with the name of Slide Show or PowerPoint! In addition to providing a great opportunity to flex your narrating muscles, this playful game blossoms when performed with fearless Justifications.
While you can certainly utilize technical components to sell this game I’d actually encourage a very low tech approach as it invites the audience into the mechanics of the scene. Typically one player will serve as the host or narrator with others using their bodies to craft various tableaux. After a brief introduction, the host cycles through a series of these hastily embodied frozen frames, providing narration that justifies each image in a way that moves the story forward. In my preferred rendition, slides are changed by the narrator saying “Close eyes” at which point they and the audience close their eyes as the onstage players quickly adjust the image. After several seconds (though not too many) the narrator then says “Open eyes” and the tableau players must immediately freeze. It’s important that the teller shuts their own eyes during these transitions (and someone in the audience will nearly always “cheat” to make sure this is happening) otherwise the stakes of the challenge are unnecessarily lowered. If you adopt this method of changing slides – and I sincerely hope you do – it’s helpful to do a very quick dry run of the dynamic with the audience prior to the scene so that they can rehearse (and appreciate) the transitions.
Player A volunteers to serve as the narrator and the suggestion of “Insomnia” inspires their action. The remaining team members strike to the side of the stage as the lights transition and the scene begins…
Player A: (assuming the persona of the narrator) “Welcome everyone to tonight’s frightening tale that is sure to haunt your dreams… that is, if you can get to sleep. Let us enter the world of Insomnia! Everyone close your eyes.”
Player A and (hopefully) the audience all close their eyes as Player B enters the space and sits downstage center with their eyes wide open and a look of panic on their face. After a few seconds...
Player A: “Open eyes.”
The audience and narrator can now view the image. The narrator, who is positioned at the edge of the stage, turns to assess the image as they continue…
Player A: “It had been a long and fitful night as Paolo laid nervously in his bed. He had spent the last three hours tossing and turning as menacing creaks in an unfamiliar house rattled his nerves. He’d ignored the warnings he’d read on the hotel’s webpage, dismissing them as efforts to add intrigue to the rickety old estate. But now he was starting to wonder. Close eyes.”
Everyone (except the posing players!) close their eyes once more. Player B (Paolo) stands pressing himself against an imaginary wall, while Player C enters and slumps down on the floor.
Player A: “Open eyes.”
Everyone does so as Players B and C freeze if they had not done so already.
Player A: “As his eyes adjusted to the darkness it was then that he saw her silhouette in the shadows! The fright made him leap to his feet. An elderly woman gently whispering incomprehensible sounds sitting in the middle of his bedroom floor…
Seek to balance strong story-telling with surprise. If the tableau players are too random (especially initially) the narrator can struggle to craft anything of value or meaning. On the other hand, if the posing improvisers are too “helpful” (that is, they defer completely to the elements already established by the narrator) the story can feel too “easy.” It’s part of the fun to see the narrator visibly challenged or a little thrown off by an image; however, it can quickly become less fun if they appear completely overwhelmed from the get-go and unable to anchor their story in anything solid.
Traps and Tips
1.) Share the work. The narrator in this game unmistakably has some heavier lifting in general as they strive to make sense of the various images, but the game suffers if it becomes completely one-sided. Posing players certainly have agency and the ability to craft dynamic choices that can radically change the direction and energy of the story. Strong and imaginative tableaux feed and inspire the narrator; if posing players assume a lackluster attitude this can quickly sap the game of its creative spark. Well-timed playful mischief (or shivving) is a wonderful gift, as are images filled with intensity and emotion. With some generous guidance from fellow “posers” Freeze Frame can also incorporate volunteers which can prove helpful if you’re playing with a smaller ensemble or are looking for new ways to include your audience.
2.) Help the narrator. There are some tried and true strategies that can assist the narrator as they work to launch a promising story. I advocate for an empty stage initially so that they have a little time and space to set a tone and style. It can also prove helpful to gently pace your entrances: this allows the narrator to clearly assess and define each addition so that there isn’t confusion as to “who was playing the giraffe again?” Four or five bodies in the first tableau can prove overwhelming especially if there is no clear area of focus or connection. When a few players hold back they also have a better chance of being able to recognize what the evolving story might need and then being available to embody that choice at the appropriate time. I have seen this game played effectively with scores of players in every image, but such an approach tends to privilege a series of loosely connected justifications – “who are all these people at the party?” – as opposed to a more elegantly crafted narrative and rising action.
3.) Embrace your character. It’s common practice to retain character endowments provided by the narrator, so if you’re cast as the protagonist (Paolo) you’ll play this role for the duration of the piece (and in this case will appear in most – if not all – of the images.) Lean into and enjoy these endowments: it’s a rare gift for many of us to create a character purely through our physical choices. As is the case with any improv scene, if you wear your character lightly you’re less likely to challenge yourself or forge dynamic relationships with your teammates. It can be easy to inadvertently “approximate” your physical poses rather than compose them with significance and weight. Expend energy. Similarly, if you are in the role of the narrator don’t overlook the potentials for fun character work here as well. The preamble or introduction, in particular, is a great place to establish a point of view that can, in turn, help you when the story elements or justifications are proving elusive.
4.) Take a risk. There are many seemingly helpful performance strategies that will actually diminish the inherent risk and playfulness of the game. If the narrator provides lengthy or predictable “close eyes” durations, fellow team members are less likely to jump to quick and unexpected decisions. Those forming the tableaux can also have a tendency to plan too much given the chance: while it’s wise to have a general sense of what your partners are doing as you make your choice, don’t be hesitant to just make your own independent bold pose, especially once the story has found its footing. Conferring too much tends to reduce the likelihood of exciting accidents. If the narrator only gives a second or two between poses this tends to keep things dynamic. Also be wary of the narrator diffusing the challenge by essentially describing exactly what they want as the next image (“Let’s see the ghost appear from the closet and attack Paolo”) as opposed to more broad setups that encourage players to make their own big decision (“And then Paolo heard a noise…”)
5.) Explore different contexts. Freeze Frame is wonderfully resilient as a short-form conceit. You can tell a traditional story, provide a series of images as part of a lecture, or recount a family holiday based on old rediscovered photographs (among many other options.) I’ve seen it work well with two characters sharing the narrative duties, often providing contrasting points of view on the topic or event. There’s also a great value in considering how you “cast” your audience as well: perhaps they are disinterested college students, or rambunctious kindergarteners, or esteemed colleagues at an annual conference. With a little care and clear framing, the audience can become more fully involved in the unfolding action beyond the simple but pleasing device of opening and closing their eyes. A small shift in the context or conceit of the game can unlock dynamic new stories and potentials. I’ve woven this device into a Greek tragedy long-form as well with strong results – as seen in the image above!
Yes, this game certainly works with an able technician bringing the lights up and down (with the narrator cueing the adjustment with “Next slide” or similar) but trust me that there is surprising value in having the audience just opening and closing their eyes along with you. I like the agency this gives. Some will enjoy having the opportunity to peek behind the scenes and watch the players scramble to move from pose to pose. For those who embrace the device, there is something oddly pleasing about the simple magic of the images transforming on cue. This approach also has the added advantage of keeping the players (and perhaps audience volunteers) safe as they move around a lit stage; when you use technology there is always an awkward tension between creating true blackouts and allowing some ambient light so that improvisers aren’t in jeopardy of crashing into each other.
Connected Concept: Justification