I personally prefer the dynamic of One-Downing than it’s kin, One-Upping, as the former feels less braggadocious and overtly competitive. (This might be due to my New Zealand upbringing where there is generally little patience for “tall poppies” or blatant self-aggrandizement.) Played gently and generously – as it should be – the game affords great opportunities to make your partners feel and look good. It’s also a fun crowd-pleaser as it trades in interpersonal energies that are all-too-familiar.
Two or more players improvise a scene in which they strive to be “less than” their partner in terms of status, value or esteem. Players can experience this dynamic in unobserved explorations, or in scenes in front of the group (it’s often helpful to do the former then the latter if time permits.) Team scenes can also incorporate this central dynamic with all the players joining the fray or one or two augmenting the scene as supporting characters who tend to the story and given circumstances rather than explicitly engage in the game conceit.
Three nervous students (Players A, B and C) sit in the principal’s waiting room having been summoned over the high school loud speaker system. Player D assumes the role of the principal’s secretary and sits to one side of the room at their desk, busying themselves with typing and paperwork. There is a moment of tension as the students sit and contemplate their fates. Player A eventually stands and starts to pace…
Player A: “I can’t afford to get into trouble again…”
Player B: “I hear you. I’m still grounded from my last ‘incident.'”
Player A: “I wish I had parents like yours! A grounding is nothing.”
Player B: “Well, it wasn’t just a grounding. I’ve not had the use of my cellphone for a month…”
Player A: “I’m still trying to persuade my mother to let me have one at all.”
Player B: “Your mother is a pushover. You just have to give her time.”
Player A: “Which is hard to measure without a cell phone, just saying.” (To Player C) “Do you have the time, Mikey?”
Player C: “Sorry, my Dad has banned me from all technology.”
Player B: “That must make doing your homework rough!”
Player C: “I get the worst writing cramps in my hand… Look, I’m so sorry. This is all my fault…”
Players should play with an eye to gradually becoming more and more hopeless (or whatever “capital” has been pitched.) The scene has an aura of competitiveness, but the action feels more real and playful when the focus is on playing the game as opposed to winning the game. Part of the charm of the conceit resides in acknowledging and enjoying the finesses of your scene partners.
Traps and Tips
1.) Explore one game or direction at a time. One-downing can include a wide array of different dynamics or value systems. Characters could be working to be seen as the most pitiful, the most under-appreciated, the most incompetent… It’s well within the realm of possibility that several dynamics might appear in the one scene but this can often make the game feel cluttered or unfocussed, especially if multiple choices inelegantly compete rather than emerge and develop with collaborative care and grace. Endeavor to pull on the same scenic thread as your teammates at any given time. The nervous students are initially riffing on the severity of their prior punishments – enjoy where this energy goes before shifting gears to a radically new facet. One-downing scenes tend to have “waves” with a series of (perhaps loosely) related issues or focal points. The work quickly becomes more laborious if characters dart randomly between multiple ideas that never have a chance to grow or mature. This is not to say a thread can’t be benched after a successful run and then reincorporated or referenced later, but strive to follow one flight of fancy at a time.
2.) Leave room for your partners’ choices and successes. If you find yourself monologuing in a One-Downing scene you may be accidentally inhibiting your scene partners from utilizing your story elements. I find it helpful to consciously contain speech acts so that there’s always clearly room for the next player’s addition. Providing fully-formed backstory or justifications can have a tendency to “end” games rather than initiate or prolonging them, and may indicate that the speaker is working a little too hard to “win.” Making smaller moves that have an almost incomplete quality, on the other hand, invite teammates into the fray. If your partner says “I’m sad,” offering “I’m having a really bad day too” is more likely to keep the game going than “I’ve been put on so many medications that I haven’t even experienced a real emotion in over a decade now…” Don’t leap to the end. It can also prove helpful to rotate which character starts each new thread so that others have a chance to undermine the original thought (although, there can be a pleasure in repeating the speaking order with similar one-downing results each time as well if this pattern has emerged organically.)
3.) Consider qualitative as opposed to quantitative moves. This is a minor pet peeve but I think it’s worth mentioning as avoiding this trap encourages players to unlock less expected responses. Number games quickly feel inelegant. If Player A observes that they lost their cat this morning before coming to school, and Player B remarks that they lost two cats this morning (and then Player C lost three…) you’re certainly engaging in a form of one-downing, but there isn’t much nuance or subtlety here. When players fall into numeric or quantitative battles I tend to lose interest rather quickly as an audience member. If you think qualitatively, thematically or magnify an unexpected part of the offer, the results are more creative and revealing. In this way A’s lost cat might result in Player B having always wanted a cat but never being allowed one, or having an imaginary cat (perhaps that they lost!) or losing a sibling that morning when they left the front door open…
4.) Tend to your physical world. As a game that leans into verbal choices and exchanges it’s easy for One-Downing to become a sit and chat affair if the participants aren’t extra careful. Status and relationships can certainly benefit from physical choices as well: do the three students adjust their seating order or positions as their various woes are ranked, or gradually slump off their chairs and onto the floor as they become increasingly overwhelmed? Crafting a rich environment with staging possibilities and props certainly helps as well (as is the case with all our improv scenes.) Tending to the location also opens up new performance choices as not every line or move needs to immediately add to the current one-downing dynamic. If you’re playing the game with a larger team, supporting players can add a lot of value by fleshing out the location with activities and staging. For example, it’s possible Player D may remain largely silent as the secretary in the office, throwing knowing looks at the students now and again. Or they could punctuate the action with foreboding high-focus crosses to the principal’s door to see if they are now ready.
5.) Maintain the veneer. Lastly, my preference is not to explode or point at the game unless this disruption is cueing the end of the scene. There is something wonderfully effective about characters “casually” playing the game while upholding a social veneer. Appearing supportive of fellow characters while also gently working to subtly gain footing provides a dynamic tension that is, unfortunately, quite recognizable as all-too-human. Friends often play these kinds of games in real life: who got the least amount of sleep last night; who has the tallest mountain of looming homework (or grading!) or who has the worst dating horror story? It’s also important to remember that by design you can one-down yourself by one-upping or elevating your partner, especially if you don’t have a next step readily in your pocket: “It’s so great that your parents are still taking an interest in you…” This also has the delightful effect of appearing generous when you are, in fact, still serving your greater subversive goal of becoming the bottom of the pecking order.
All of these techniques apply equally to One-Upping scenes and I generally teach these both back-to-back. Students will nearly always have an innate preference, but there’s great value in exploring both sides of the status coin. (High status players tend to prefer One-Upping, for example.) In addition to a great game in its own right, this tool also provides a joyful character quality that can enrich pretty much any improv (or scripted) scene.
For a similar dynamic used to a very different end, check out my earlier post describing the game Nicer Than You here.
Connected Concept: Looking Good