Game Library: “Name Circle”

Just as Names are critical components of our scenic work – offering insights and details for our characterizations – so too are they important in our workshops and rehearsal halls. Most processes start with some form of “getting to know you” exercise, especially if you’re working in a newly-formed ensemble. As is likely the case with most instructors, I’ve made a point of collecting and adapting Name Circle warm-ups so as to keep my own repertory fresh. These activities routinely serve as great ice-breakers, energy boosters, or simply drills for gaining comfort with the names of your fellow players. I’m breaking with tradition a little and including examples and pertinent tips alongside each of the eight variations as each one provides slightly different opportunities and challenges.

The Basics

The group forms a circle. And one player begins…

Version One – Adjective Actions: Player A takes a step into the middle of the circle and introduces themselves by providing an adjective (typically that shares the first letter of their name) their name or nickname, and an exaggerated gesture. Once completed, Player A steps back and the rest of the group repeats the three elements – adjective, name and gesture – with gusto and full attack. Players can tend to make the smallest, least committed gesture possible, especially if you are working with newer performers, so encourage abandon and full commitment. After all, “no one looks silly if everyone does it!”

Player A: (steps into the circle) “Hi, I’m delirious David!” Player A performs an outlandish sweeping bow and then steps back. The rest of the group then takes a step forward and mirrors the introduction.

Version Two – Original Acronyms: Player A steps forward and provides an on-the-spot acronym that utilizes each of the letters of their first name in sequence. The challenge is markedly more formidable for those who go first (as those later in the circle will invariably start to solve the riddle a little beforehand.) This doesn’t necessarily matter, especially if everyone is playing this warm-up together for the first time, but if you’re looking to also stretch players’ verbal or risk muscles, you could have players state their names and then provide an acronym for a random word provided there and then by the instructor or coach. At the conclusion of each acronym players can chime a welcome to the speaking player in return, or perhaps physicalize the probably absurd statement. Be wary of well-intended players offering up solutions if others are struggling (unless it’s a true move of desperately sought-after kindness) as a little struggle is built into this dynamic that rewards bravery over perfection.

Player A: (steps into the circle) “Hello, I’m David and I Delight At Vicariously Inspecting Daffodils.” The Group responds with an enthusiastic “Hello David!” and all begin to pantomime examining flowers…

Version Three – Passing Names: This works best as a review of names or following a round of quick introductions. The first player (“A”) begins the process by clapping towards another player and clearly saying their name (“B.”) Player B now continues the process by selecting someone else randomly across the circle and claps towards them with this new player’s name. Players continue passing the focus in this fashion, clearly stating each others’ names with energy and conviction while simultaneously striving to make sure that no-one is excluded. Seek a steady rhythm and encourage players to risk getting a name wrong rather than leaving someone out of the mix, especially if you’re early in the process of getting to know each other. When such missteps occur (and they nearly always do) the player in question should just quickly share a correction and then keep the energy moving. More significant stumbles for this or any of the following variants can be met with boisterous applause (a great tradition for dealing with fumbles in general) and then a reinvigorated restart. Also make sure that the claps don’t become too loud or they will start to obscure the accompanying names.

Player A makes a clear gesture (usually a soft clap) across the circle to Player B and says “Dwayne.” Player B (Dwayne) then shifts the focus and claps towards Player C and says “Ciara”…

Version Four – Rhythm Circle: The group softly begins a rhythm (not too briskly at first) that consists of two thigh slaps followed by two finger snaps. Once this tempo is steady, Player A begins sending around an evolving sequence of player names by saying their own name twice (on the thigh slaps) followed by their intended recipient’s name twice (on the finger snaps.) This newly named player has now been tagged and should strive to immediately repeat their own name twice on the next two beats, followed by a new player’s name twice on the two finger snaps. Larger groups tend to increase the tempo (and volume) through excitement so strive to keep it at an even keel, especially as the game is being taught. If the name exchanges are falling wildly off the rhythm, slow it down and prompt a re-start. Should the ensemble find comfort in the logistics, you can then introduce a second syncopated sequence that passes around the circle with your own name twice on the snaps and your intended partner on the thigh slaps (but this will almost invariably grind things to a halt if you were already struggling with the base model!) When a player is tagged at the same time in both sequences they should avoid passing them both on the same beat thereby erasing the syncopation. This can be avoided by the player in question either pausing for two snaps or slaps between their offers (“David, David, Dwayne, Dwayne, pause, pause, David, David, Ciara, Ciara”) or omitting their own name between the two tags (“David, David, Dwayne, Dwayne, Ciara, Ciara”). If this strategy feels opaque it will make much more sense the first time it is called for, I promise!

Player A: (on the established rhythm) “David, David, Dwayne, Dwayne”

Player B: (on the established rhythm) “Dwayne, Dwayne, Ciara, Ciara”

Version Five – Marching Tags: I have to confess that I probably play this one too much, but it tends to quickly increase the energy and focus in the space while also reinforcing names. Similar to version three above, players now add movement to the process: Player A says their own name twice and then repeats the name of another member of the group (“B”) while walking towards this selected player. Player B then accepts this “tag” and vacates their spot in the circle by repeating their own name twice and then the name of another random player (“C”) while walking towards them. Avoid tagging players to your immediate left or right as it tends to bunch up the exercise in unhelpful ways, and be sure to make the focus passes energized and clear. As players become comfortable with the general conceit and flow, you can generally add new chains into the mix which necessitates even more deliberate focus gives and articulation. I’ll initiate four or five new threads by the end of the game which tends to give a dramatic energy boost and some delightfully climactic chaos.

Player A: (leaving their spot in the circle and walking towards Player B) “David, David, Dwayne, Dwayne…”

Version Six – Decaying Pass: This one has a few stages and requires a little more time. The first round, similar to version one above, requires each player to introduce themselves by saying their name twice accompanied with a repeated gesture that is unique and dynamic. It’s particularly important that gestures are not too similar to others in the mix. Players should take care to closely observe and then repeat everyone’s first choice as these become the foundation of the game. For round two, players now pass the focus around the circle by first repeating their own name and gesture twice and then that of their intended recipient. This new player responds by echoing their own name and gesture twice and then that of a new player in the circle. After everyone’s name and gesture has been suitably burnt in a few times (make sure no one is accidentally omitted) the ensemble can move to round three where players no longer repeat their own name and gesture when they are tagged but rather just perform twice the name and gesture of the new player in the sequence. Round four consists of abridging the tag even further and now players drop the verbal component and merely pass focus through the use of the established repeated gestures. And if you have the appetite for a fifth round, players can then half the gestures of their intended recipients so now each motion is only performed once and in silence. Each new round should ideally increase the tempo and attack of the exchanges without them becoming needlessly frantic or ill-defined.

After all the players have established their names and gestures, Player A begins round two by saying “David, David” with two outlandish bows, followed by “Dwayne, Dwayne” (Player B) and their established action of two disco points to the ceiling. Player B continues the game…

Version Seven – Torture Names: I wouldn’t recommend this one at all for an initial name circle salvo but it can be a playful refresher for a more established group. Focus is passed around the circle with clear claps and stated names (as in version three above.) However, now when Player A claps towards Player B they must say someone else’s name in the circle (Player C.) Player C has now, in fact, been tagged (not the person Player A was clapping towards) and they must now clap towards a new player in the group (“D”) while naming yet another different player (“E”) the latter of whom then continues the game. This can be a bit of a mind melting warm-up as players need to, on some level, almost separate their listening and observing skills. I’ve also played it where the person who is clapped towards continues the chain (as opposed to the named player) but for reasons a neuro scientist might have to explain, it doesn’t seem to have the same effect or challenge.

Player A: (while clapping towards Player B “Dwayne“) “Ciara.” Player C (Ciara) continues the sequence.

Version Eight – The Snake: This is a favorite but I’m not exaggerating when I say that it can easily take 60 to 90 minutes if you’re working with sixteen or more players. Round one begins as Player A turns into the circle and stands opposite Player B. Both players greet each other (shaking hands, a high five, or whatever works in your company culture) and say their names. Each player then provides a brief factoid or truthful experience – something that they are comfortable ultimately sharing with the whole group. After this exchange, Player A continues around the circle to Player C and repeats the introduction process of sharing names and completely different brief facts – each new pairing should be sure to share two new pieces of information. Once Player A has moved several players down the line, Player B follows behind, greeting first Player C, then D… This continues with each following player replicating the pattern of their predecessor. Eventually, Player A will make it to the last player in the circle (Player L for our example) and will then fold back into their original place. Round two overlaps in that as players meet for a second time (so Player B has just talked to Player L and is now faced again with Player A) improvisers no longer introduce themselves but rather repeat each others’ names and the original factoids they shared when they first met (if they can!) Players continue to return to their original spots in the circle with Player L being the last to weave around the whole group in sequence. Round three commences once everyone is back in the circle having had two brief moments with everyone else, first providing names and an original fact, and then striving to repeat them. The final round consists of players taking turns stepping into the middle of the circle with an energized announcement of “Let’s meet [player’s name]!” Other players on the peripheral then randomly chime in with the host of facts that they can recall about the featured improviser. This process continues until everyone has been celebrated in this celebratory fashion. This iteration requires a greater willingness to share and risk than merely providing a goofy gesture, but will also forge richer and more unexpected connections.

Player A: (turning to Player B and greeting them) “Hi, I’m David. I’m the third of four siblings and have two sisters and a brother.”

Player B: “Hi David! I’m Dwayne. I have been a vegetarian since I was eight years old.”

In Performance

Just in case it doesn’t go without saying, be mindful of the specific needs and abilities of your group. Some of these exercises are more boisterous than others (Marching Tags tends to have folks bumping into each other a little.) Others may be a little more challenging if several players share the same name. If you’ve a favorite name game that you’re willing to share that isn’t featured here yet, I’d love to keep this list growing. You can post it below or email me the details here.

New to You can check out other improv games and exercises here, or explore the “A” to “Z” series of improv terminology and techniques here.

Cheers, David Charles.
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Names

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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