If you’ve taken a few improv classes I would imagine you have already come across some version of Word Association. This perennial exercise provides helpful insights into the creative process and how we can generate new Material from an open and reactive process.
I’m including three versions of this warmup that I use often (and one that’s a newer addition to my lexicon) as they all have a little something different to offer. The basic premise remains largely the same: one player begins by providing a random word and offering it to another who must then quickly respond with the next unfiltered word that comes to mind. This new word then becomes the impetus for the next player’s contribution. Working at a quick pace, players create a sequence of associated words conjured in this manner.
Version One – The Classic: Players form one large circle and someone volunteers as the first contributor: this improviser then provides the first offer for the exercise. The sequence moves in a set direction (generally clockwise) with players turning and giving their new word to the next player. Words travel around the circle for multiple rotations: you can reverse the direction just to shake it up a little. If you are working with a larger group it can be helpful to model the exercise and then break into a couple of smaller circles to decrease the lag time between offers. Waiting for too long between contributions almost invariably invites players to retreat back into their heads unfortunately.
Version Two – Word Ball: Players work in a circle once again but now the word and focus no longer move in a steady and predictable pattern. The first volunteer pitches their random word across the circle with an energized gesture to a specific player who responds by sending their own associated word to a new random person. In this manner the sequence darts quickly between players thereby keeping everyone a little more “on their toes.” If you use the classic model often as a warmup, this iteration provides a freshness and further prevents players from planning or getting ahead of the chain as they no longer know where they will fall in the sequence. As this variation introduces the possibility that some players may become under-featured, be sure to encourage an awareness of involving everyone equally in the game.
Version Three – Word in the Middle: This variation has become a standard warm-up for some of my theme-based long-forms. In addition to exercising spontaneity this approach also serves as a brainstorming session of sorts. The director or a member of the ensemble offers up a concept or theme word such as “power,” “support,” or “sincerity,” and this word is proverbially placed in the “center of the circle.” One player initiates the game Word Ball style (sending the focus randomly around the circle) with the chosen theme serving as the first offer. Players now associate with the word immediately offered, the predetermined theme word, or (more commonly) an organic combination of them both. Players can return to the chosen word if they are momentarily stumped, want to pull the group focus back to the central idea, or feel that the exercise has served its function. In the latter instance, we’ll usually wrap up the warmup when four or five players have all opted to say the given theme word in a row. Admittedly, this version refocuses the dynamic of the base Word Association a little, and contributions can become a little more heady if players are not careful. Ideally, however, the process retains the playful abandon of the original.
Version Four – The Third Thought: This is another iteration that shifts the foundational focus a little, although you reap a powerful device for finding new angles into old material. You can move in sequence around the circle or play randomly Word Ball style (I prefer the latter.) Now when a new word is passed the responding player actively skips an association, responding instead with their third thought. So if Player A passes Player B “Chicken,” Player B hears “Chicken” (first thought) then associates “Drumstick” (second thought) and then makes one more connection before passing “Drum kit” (third thought.) Again I’d caution that this invites a more intellectual experience which can work against the intended immediacy of the original exercise, so still encourage bravery and attack. If you’re looking for ways to jumpstart new ideas from old suggestions though, this warm-up can squarely fit the bill: an audience suggestion of dentist could now inspire a scene on a deep sea oil rig rather than in a dentist’s chair when the initiating player associates from dentist to drill to derrick before beginning the action!
Players form a circle to play the first version. Starting with Player A, they pass words around the circle: “Mountain… Summit… Peak… Spy… Magnifying Glass… Insect…”
Players should strive for immediacy, reactivity and silencing any internal judges that might be influencing their word choices. A steady and jaunty tempo often indicates that the group is working well in these areas of focus.
Traps and Tips
1.) Keep an eye out for… invented rules. The central premise of Word Association is beautifully simple: listen to the prior player’s word and then offer up the next word that leaps to mind. I’ve found that players will often self-impose additional rules that are not part of the contract. It’s fine to say a word that’s already been said or even to repeat the word that was just said if this is your honest and immediate response. It’s equally fine to have your reaction resemble onomatopoeia in that it is part word and part guttural reaction. Or you might find yourself responding with two words, or a word in another language, or a short phrase, all of which are more than okay too. There is no expectation that contributions are breathtakingly unique; in fact, the expectation is the very opposite. Players should allow themselves to just let their instincts play. There really isn’t a “wrong” in word association in terms of your response, although there are some habits or “cheats” in terms of your technique that might inhibit the risk of spontaneity. I address some of these pitfalls below.
2.) Keep an eye out for… judgment. It’s difficult to take the risk and leap into the corners of your subconscious if you feel yourself playing in a judgmental environment. On some occasions this may be coming from the director or fellow players; more commonly, however, the judging tends to come from the players’ own inner voice. Encourage bravery and ownership of each new word association. When words are offered with a questioning or apologetic tone – “I really don’t like this word but it’s all I can think of…” – the exercise quickly loses its generative energy and joy. It’s good practice for us to pitch our contributions with passion and conviction, and this can start with a seemingly simple little game like this one. As a coach you can assist with this atmosphere by focusing feedback on the way the group is playing and riffing rather than highlighting specific content whenever possible. Establishing content parameters, which may feel necessary in some academic environments in particular, can prove a little tricky in this game as when you actively discourage risqué material you may actually end up increasing the likelihood of its appearance, although I hope it goes without saying that the game should not be used as a tool to deliberately offend or divide the ensemble.
3.) Keep an eye out for… thinking three steps ahead. The human mind can prove quite remarkable in its efforts to avoid looking unprepared! I’ve found that patterns can often emerge (especially in the first version of the game) where players are subconsciously pre-selecting their words several players before it’s their turn. If the sequence has been “Purple… Red… Blue… Bird… Bath… Green” it’s highly possible that the “Green” player may be inadvertently continuing the “list of colors game” rather than responding openly to the word “Bath.” (It’s also possible that they might just have a green bath at home!) I use the image of a blank piece of paper and invite players to imagine that they only “see” the word immediately prior to their own so as to avoid the potential trap of listing. While there is something comfortable about just adding another item to that long list that’s already going, this approach doesn’t fully embrace the creative gifts of the game. On rarer occasions, players may also start forming or continuing sentences rather than associating random words. This is another great exercise in its own right (you can find it here) but is a bit of a cheat as well when its done in lieu of taking the risk of adding something more personal.
4.) Keep an eye out for… over-originality. A related trap anxious players can fall into is deciding their contribution well in advance and inserting it into the flow regardless of what has come before. As opposed to perhaps holding onto a list category as described above, this approach tends to reveal itself in disjointed offerings that are extremely peculiar or are pitched with a clear intent to amuse or surprise – “just wait until I keep saying pineapple every time it’s my turn to play…” Again, it’s probably futile and ultimately unhelpful to dwell on these moments as one player’s obvious might be another player’s bizarre, but generally it helps to emphasize the import of making simple and honest reactions without feeling the pressure to appear clever. No-one can win at Word Association – it’s about connecting to the group and allowing yourself to be fully present, engaged and changed. Which, lastly, brings me to…
5.) Keep an eye out for… poor eye contact. This might seem like a small consideration but it is often telling of more systemic issues when players only passively pass the words. They may avoid eye contact with their initiator and receiver, looking skyward or to the ground instead, or in the randomized versions send the focus without clear intent or direction across the circle. This may occur due to anxiousness or a fear that their words aren’t “good” enough, or just a general inability to commit to the task at hand. It’s important to really connect to your fellow players in the circle, and to accept and offer the associations with conviction and deliberateness. Overly casual passes and physicality are often accompanied by overly casual articulation and this exercise lives and dies based on whether or not you can hear and comprehend the words that are being pitched. And it’s a good habit, after all, to make sure that your intended partner has truly received your improv gift. In the event that you didn’t quite catch the prior word (or it is in a language you don’t know) my strong preference is to associate with the energy or feel of what you did hear rather than pause the game to repeat the missed offer.
When I’m utilizing these exercises for the first time with a group I’ll often just ask what was happening when the game was on a roll? What did this feel and look like and what were players experiencing individually and as a group? Generally players are adept at knowing when they were fully present (the words just kept flowing at a brisk tempo) or when they were struggling (their eyes floated to the ceiling each time they were offered a new word as they sifted through several possibilities.) The stakes of this game are so wonderfully low, and yet it can quickly reveal habits and hesitancies that, left unattended, will not serve players well as they move into more complex and nuanced scenes and stories. These exercises also provide a palpable and important reminder that material can emerge with surprising ease when we just listen and react in the moment.
Cheers, David Charles.
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Photo Credit: Charlotte Brown
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr
Connected Concept: Material