Game Library: “Death in a Minute”

As I first learned this game during my high school Theatresports days, Death in a Minute would certainly be in the running for the short-form game I’ve known and played the longest. While you can adjust the titular time limit to suit your own artistic needs, the one minute challenge demands a heightened level of attention and collaboration on the part of the players as there is really no room to depart from anything other than the Obvious evolving story.

The Basics

A prompt is obtained, such as an indoor location, benign prop, or mundane occupation – you generally want to avoid anything that innately screams “death!” Players then have a strictly timed one-minute scene by the end of which someone or something must have come to an untimely end.

Example

A pillow factory inspires the action. Player A and B begin the scene engaged in a joyous pillow fight.

Player A: “I think this latest batch of pillows is passing the pillow fight test!”

Player B: “I couldn’t agree more. But here’s one more schwack just to make sure.”

Player B happily launches their pillow at A’s head who responds with similar glee. Player C enters as a manager carrying a large tray.

Player C: “Surprise! You have both been awarded employee of the month!”

Player A: (still pillow fighting) “There’s no-one I’d rather share this recognition with!”

Player B: “Nor I!!!”

Player C: “And here’s your celebratory prime rib dinner with all the fixings…!”

Player C starts to cut lavish slices of prime rib with an oversized and extremely sharp knife…

The Focus

Make sure the death is appropriately contextualized and justified. While a previously unmet character could run on at the last moment and have a heart attack, this would be unlikely to resolutely button the story in a satisfying way. Endeavor to take more sequential steps that clearly connect to and build from the prior choices of your teammates. As you’ll quickly learn when workshopping this game, there really isn’t much room within the minute to discard early actions in order to go shopping for something else.

Traps and Tips

1.) The death can occur at any time. While it’s often the case that the death occurs in the closing moments of the scene, this needn’t be your default strategy as players as the death can, in fact, occur at any time that seems appropriate. There is certainly a value in using this large action as a scenic climax, but the scene could also feature an exploration of the consequences of an ill-timed departure. Just be cautious of making the death insignificant or throwing it away as a gimmick. I still remember from my high school days a team that had a member who always started the game by just running onto the middle of the stage and dying before any sense of the scenic given circumstances had been established. His fellow players then routinely scrambled to do all the heavy lifting to make some semblance of a scene around his unhelpful dead body. That was over thirty years ago so even as a novice improviser I clearly understood that this stock choice punctured the central dynamic of the game.

2.) The death can happen to (nearly) anyone or anything. Another cool feature of the game not to overlook is that the death doesn’t necessarily have to occur to a person. It’s in the spirit of the game for players to explore the death of a relationship, prop or conceptual theme such as joy or hope. That being said, there are no prizes for concocting a death that is so esoteric that when the lights blackout the majority of the audience has no idea what died (other than, perhaps, their hopes for entertainment.) In the spirit of being obvious, it’s also more than okay for the most likely character who has had an aura of doom swirling around them for the duration of the scene to finally face their comeuppance in the final moments. I’ve noted that “nearly” anyone can die, and while I am loathe to offer any “unbreakable” rules for an improv frame, experience would suggest that it’s an extremely hard sell if harm comes to a child in any way. As this game is almost exclusively presented in comedic venues, such a choice just places an unnecessary ick on the scene. (When I improvised at Walt Disney World’s Comedy Warehouse the only two choices guaranteed to get us into hot water as players were showing drug use or harm to children onstage.) If in doubt, punch up rather than down when it comes to ultimately selecting the scene’s victim.

3.) The death should prove significant (even if it’s a surprise.) When you think about the canon of dramatic literature, deaths are almost always large and climactic events that drastically raise the stakes and emotional energy of a play. Making the death an afterthought, resoundingly anticlimactic, or inserting it as an otherwise inconsequential Canadian Cross might appear ingenious but these are often just clever ways to avoid committing to an emotional and heightened scene. Yes, it might prove delightful for a character who has been sitting quietly in the background of the featured action to come to a sudden end as they try in vain to capture the attention of their co-workers; but, more times than not, you will be best served by visiting this fate on a character of note. If a surprising death does occur – as can oft occur in the final moments of the scene if a clear option has not emerged – embrace this choice with all your might. For example, while the carving knife might seem like a natural deathly cause, perhaps a player slips on the manager’s stowed tray instead. In most cases such deaths offer a tilt, revelation or shift in the power balance. You may only have a few moments to process this adjustment, but this sudden shift is part of the challenge and fun of the game.

4.) The death should clearly land. There are several layers to this observation. On the most obvious level, the audience should clearly know what or who has died and why or how this happened. Ambiguous deaths rarely belong in this game. On a related note, the death should also have a clear finality to it as the game isn’t called Nearly a Death in a Minute. If you have been targeted to die make sure that you fully take on this theatrical opportunity. I’ve seen many improvisers oddly half-heartedly accept their fate rather than relish it and go out with a dramatic bang! Admittedly, it can feel odd to find yourself at this junction in a scene, but the game is predicated on the fact that a death will be pitched and embodied: it’s off-putting for all involved if you see the victim reluctantly or passively accepting the offer of their downfall. A possible work around for this can be clearly offering yourself up as the sacrifice so as to empower your teammates to assemble the needed ingredients. If you are not marked to die, make sure you are providing the intended recipient sufficient stage time and focus to enjoy their last moments in the sun. It’s unlikely for a death to feel climactic if it has to compete with a multitude of other busy actions on the stage at the same time.

5.) The death can benefit from time warnings. Though it might be a stretch to consider this a “called” game, the performance definitely benefits from strategic time warnings. One minute is much shorter than you might expect, and as this time restriction is in the game title it is foreseeable that someone in the audience will be keeping at least a loose eye on the time as well: if the game meanders into a second minute players really aren’t meeting a fundamental challenge of the piece. In rehearsals, time warnings are helpful to encourage scenic efficiency and deliberateness. In the above example, players have probably used up 20 to 30 seconds already so the death is not that far away and will need to use something already in play – a pillow, the prime rib, the carving knife… If a caller offers “30 seconds” now everyone will hopefully be on the same page that a potential target needs to emerge quickly in order for the scene to conclude. In performance there’s also something innately dramatic about hearing the numbers decrease as the unknown death looms closer and closer.

In Performance

For such a compact little game, Death in a Minute has a great deal to offer in terms of necessitating that players work in one unified direction, encouraging the heightening of energy and scenic stakes, and demonstrating that following the most obvious path as it emerges before you will likely lead to success. There is an interesting tension between the game’s overt comedic intent and the somber subject matter, so you’ll want to walk this path knowingly and joyously by avoiding needlessly controversial or darker hues. This format doesn’t easily ally itself with complex social commentaries or statements: there just isn’t time.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Obvious

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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