I’ve known this game by many names – most of which haven’t stood up well to the tests of time – and the word-at-a-time dynamic it showcases also serves as the central device of many related short-form games and warm-ups. Double Speak demands that improvisers are truly present and connected, and as such provides a fitting exercise for addressing both Bulldozer and Passenger performer patterns.
Two players self-nominate to work closely together as one character for the duration of the scene, alternating words in their dialogue in a word-at-a-time fashion. Other players perform without any verbal or physical restrictions and should address this featured character as a singular entity.
Player A and B decide to form the featured character and wrap arms around each others’ waists. They receive the occupation of “plumber” as the initiation and as the scene starts Player C (as an individual character) invites A/B into their house...
Player C: (in a panic) “Thank you so much for coming on such short notice…”
Player A and B talk as one character, quickly alternating words…
Player A: “You…”
Player B: “did…”
Player A: “the…”
Player B: “right…”
Player A: “thing…”
Player B: “calling…”
Player A: “me.”
Player A extends their right (free) hand to shake Player C’s as Player B holds an imaginary tool box.
Player A and B (continuing to provide one word each in sequence) “I’m… Victoria… of… Victoria’s… Plumbing… Now… show… me… the… source… of… the… problem.”
Player C: “It’s my kitchen sink. Water is just gushing everywhere!”
In some ways the mark of a successful Double Speak game is that everyone just attacked the action as if it were any other unimpeded scene. There is obviously an added challenge for the word-at-a-time character, and these improvisers should be given a little extra love and support as they navigate the verbal and physical hurdles that the game will invariably throw at them. It’s also generally poor form to name or point at the explicit game too much: the more other players or characters inelegantly call out the odd behavior of the “Double Speaker,” for example, the more likely it is for the energy of the scene to become tepid.
Traps and Tips
1.) Verbal pointers for the Double Speaker. Some little things first: make sure you consistently talk about yourself as an “I” rather than a “we” as the premise is that both improvisers are embodying the one character who just happens to have two contributing minds. It’s helpful to have a designated first speaker so that when you are beginning new sentences you don’t have to continually negotiate who will go first – constant sentence false starts just add hesitancy which is the enemy of the game. Be mindful of needless air between your words or searching for the “perfect” contribution: it’s better to say your immediate thought, no matter how clumsy it is, and trust that others in the scene can justify it later if need be. Stalling or excruciatingly plodding speech will quickly make the game rather unwatchable. On a more macro level, just attack the language and work to infuse it with subtext, nuance, emotion and inflection. Don’t allow yourself to become robotic or so measured in your speech that you’ve lost the risk of surprising yourself and your scene partner. This is most definitely a “leap before you look” type of situation.
2.) Physical pointers for the Double Speaker. Find a way to comfortably but strongly connect to your partner so that you can move through the scene as one: this might be arms around each others’ shoulders or waists, linking arms, or holding hands depending on need, pandemic conditions, and comfort levels. Remember that this game has both the verbal restriction of word-at-a-time as well as the physical restriction of two characters connecting and moving around as if they were one. As players focus in on the verbal communication component it becomes easy to neglect your physical presence within the scene which is a huge loss: make bold gestures, grab specific mimed props, complete multilayered everyday activities. So much fun can be had watching two improvisers trying to coordinate their free hands to complete otherwise mundane actions, such as pouring a cup of coffee, or driving a car, or taking off a raincoat… Keeping a dynamic physical presence also maintains energy for those moments when your scene partners are talking or if you need a second to reset when the words just aren’t coming. To this end, it’s really helpful to get a physical hobby or multilayered action as the scene ask-for so as to encourage full-bodied acting.
3.) Verbal pointers for the other characters. By design the Double Speaker should emerge as the scene’s focus or protagonist so make sure you are making your offers with this reality in mind. Especially at the top of the scene, the pair may need a little extra verbal room to find their flow and groove. Be extra wary of interrupting them as it’s often not a simple matter for them to just pick up where they left off. A good rule of thumb is that if you’re talking more than the featured players you should probably pull back a little, or maybe even find a reason to leave for a while so that they have more stage time to explore and get themselves into and out of trouble. It’s so easy to accidentally use plural pronouns for the Double Speaker as well, so be mindful of how you address them or introduce them to others in the scene.
4.) Physical pointers for the other players. This strikes me as an oft under-utilized component of the scene that can add a great deal of dynamism (and a little bit of playful torture!) Lean heavily into the physical reality that the Double Speaker is one character. If you offer them a seat, offer them one seat so that they need to negotiate that obstacle. When fellow players overly accommodate the physical restrictions (which is always done with the best of intent) the team and audience are robbed of watching players solve unexpected challenges in real time. Stumbled upon physical connections – a handshake, high five or hug (with consent) – frequently add mischievous delight to the scene. As always, you’ll want to be careful that the action doesn’t solely become one pitched torture after another: give the scene room to find its footing and earnest direction. But unencumbered players should be sure to capitalize on the inherent gifts of the physical world and endeavor to enrich this component of the scene as best they can.
Word-at-a-time games are essentially a sub-genre of improvisational short-form and so there are numerous variations that build upon this base such as Epistolaries, Word at a Time Crime and several Experts frames. (Word at a Time Story can serve as an obvious warm-up to these games, which you can read about here.) In terms of this particular game there are two additions that can up the heat a little once players feel comfortable with the basics. Double Double Speak incorporates two characters that consist of two players each engaging in the verbal restriction. This requires additional attack as you no longer have “regular” speaking actors who can more readily justify or weave glorious mistakes into the greater narrative. Double Blind Double Speak adds yet another level of risk (and perhaps a little danger.) Not for the faint of heart this iteration has one half of each character combo close their eyes for the duration of the scene so that now, on top of crafting dialogue one word at a time, they are making their physical choices in the dark, relying on their partner to keep them safe while incorporating these moves into the mix. This requires a heightened level of trust and abandon and those who are performing with their eyes open must keep everyone safe for the duration of the scene above all else.
I pretty strictly play these games with the word-at-a-time handle but there are equivalent scenes that use a “one voice” dynamic where the partnered players must sound out each word together as they are formed. (Epistolaries, in fact, usually has one letter writing couple use word-at-a-time while the other speaks in one voice.) For the purposes of exploring issues of bulldozing and passengering, however, I strongly prefer the approach discussed above. Word-at-a-time requires aggressive players to release the illusion of control as every second word is coming from elsewhere, while more timid players have to contribute each time the sentence winds back around to them and make a quick and connected choice. One voice versions can help in this regard as well but my experience has been that when players are left to their own devices passengers will tend to defer to a strong lead and bulldozers will happily steer whole sentences or more to get to their intended destination. In this way, one voice variants can almost seem to reward these bad habits as they provide a quicker path to “successful” dialogue than the clumsy initial process that should occur with the two players negotiating almost every word and sound together in the crucible of the here and now.
Connected Concept: Passenger