This improv format is inspired by the classic 1950s Japanese movie of the same name that looks at one event from multiple character Points of View. I know Rashomon as a short-form replay game but, as the source material amply illustrates, the concept certainly has the legs to be expanded into a fuller-length improvisational piece as well.
Players improvise a “base scene” prompted by an audience suggestion, such as an important event, dramatic location or pivotal relationship. This first scene, while considered “neutral,” actually provides the basic frame and details for everything that follows. At the completion of the scene, the players then replay this action but now filter it through the point of view of one specified character at a time. While the general “beats” of the scene should remain the same – as is the case for most replay formats – the details are now adjusted to augment and reflect the chosen character’s experience. Time permitting, the scene may then be replayed from the perspective of some (or ideally all) of the original featured characters.
Player A, as an addled parent, escapes into the lobby bar of an urban hotel. Player B and C are two unattached and unencumbered singles, flirting casually over their over-priced drinks. The bartender, Player D, idly pushes their cloth back and forth on the bar as much to pass the time as to actually clean. As Player A collapses onto a stool, Player D notices their dishevelment.
Player D: “You look like you could use a drink…”
Player A: “That’s just one thing on a long list of what I need!”
The logistics of this game can be a little tricky to wrap your mind around if you haven’t explored the basic premise and helpful strategies beforehand (which I strongly advise.) Rashomon provides an excellent lesson in crafting clear and strong points of view as the game demands that characters are not merely floating aimlessly through the base scene. This notion of shifting the narrative focus also resonates with several performance strategies in the healing arts which points to the potentials of this frame to enrich a wide range of venues and improv modalities.
Traps and Tips
1.) Plant the seeds. If you don’t establish at least the inkling of an interesting character point of view or attitude in the base scene the resulting replays can become quite the struggle. This isn’t a good scene to play casually with low stakes and minimal attack (mind you, few scenes do well with this deadpan approach.) As I’ve demonstrated in the example above, characters should hit the stage hot with some energy or potential deal, even if this changes considerably as it combines with the ideas of other teammates. In addition to having some sense of your own deal – “I’m an overworked parent who craves the simpler days of my youth” – make sure you also keep an eye out for the deals of others as this is equally important for the later replays. Early scenic choices should exude emotional intensity while keeping specifics largely in the subtext rather than text. If you are too explicit in the first iteration there will often be nowhere new to go down the road. This might go without saying but just in case it doesn’t, players who don’t appear in the base scene can’t easily contribute in the reenactments, so if you elect to remain in the wings make sure your teammates have built a promising improv edifice that doesn’t need you. If you do pop in for a brief Canadian Cross or nudge, also be aware that it’s in the spirit of the game for your perspective to become the focus of a replay too, so have something in your pocket.
2.) Don’t get caught in the weeds. Part of the delightful contract of replay games is that the foundational elements of the scene should generally remain intact. If Player A enters the bar, is served by the bartender, interacts with the young couple B and C, receives a phone call from their babysitter, and then orders a double to drown their sorrows, these basic pointers should frame everything that follows. That is not to say the nuances, dialogue and action might not change considerably – and in fact one hopes that they will – but keep your foundational parameters in mind as you play, deviating from them out of strength rather than from a fuzzy recollection. Extremely verbose scenes can prove challenging for this reason: consider action that is rich with emotion instead. As players scroll through the new replays it’s important that they work to a common end. If the bartender’s original subtext was that they are overworked and everyone takes them for granted, try to establish this game quickly and clearly in their reenactment so that everyone can elevate this particular point of view. Perhaps Player A originally responds with “I’d like a gin and tonic” but now this becomes “I’d like you to solve all my problems but I won’t tip you well.” If your character is featured early in the scene it helps the whole team if you make a brave move that others can then mirror (hence the import of paying close attention to the first scene so you have a sense of what others might have been pitching.)
3.) Water others’ gardens. One of my favorite features of this format is that it requires players to heighten the points of view of their teammates in order for the replays to flourish. Improvisational philosophies often stress tending to our own deals, at least initially, and this structure palpably reminds us that games only thrive when we all play them together. When you cycle through the replays the heavy lifting generally falls on the shoulders of the characters and players who aren’t in focus as they are responsible for selling the narrative shift. In many ways the featured player primarily serves as the “straight” character responding honestly to others’ choices while maintaining the established trajectory of the original template. While I recommend hitting this shift in perspective quickly and clearly, don’t drown the new protagonist in a tsunami of well-intended suggestions but rather build and complicate the story one patient step at a time. The replays specifically benefit from making sure the focused character has sufficient time to receive and process each new move, hence the import of not creating a needlessly frenetic baseline. If in doubt it proves helpful to ask yourself “how does the featured character perceive me or my actions” as you adjust the tonality and delivery of your dialogue. Player B and C who may have been just mildly annoying originally with their youthful entitlement, now might feel their passions are being brutally extinguished by those who have no place in a hip hotel bar when we experience the world through their eyes.
4.) Pick the ripest crops. Every character needn’t have a turn in the focus hot seat although this can become the expectation depending on the way your introduce the game and the rhythms of your particular performance. Admittedly, there is certainly something innately satisfying about getting to glimpse into everyone’s head at least for a moment. If you’re new to this game or the base scene feels a little underdeveloped, grab an easier character as your first focal point so that you (and the audience) have a chance to warm into the central dynamic. (Deploying a caller can also steer the selections based on what they feel was landing well and takes a little pressure off the cast to make split second decisions when they may not have a good sense of the bigger picture yet.) If a character feels marginal either in terms of their scenic function or, frankly, their ability to land a definitive point of view, you could either skip them or strategically place them in the middle of the replay pack. I’d just advise not leaving them until last in case there really isn’t much to harvest: you don’t want a stumbling reenactment as the final taste of the scene for the audience. Characters that are occupying similar or parallel functions, as is the potentially the case with the younger bar goers above, can also combine into one replay, especially if time is a consideration. Ideally keep a character whose implied game has the strongest potential for your curtain call as it can be a little off-putting when the replays burn brightly initially only to fizzle when the game finally reaches the finish line. Often it can prove delightful to save the most featured character – likely Player A in our bar scene – until this last position for this reason, although I will confess that I’ve also seen strong teams slay by putting the most minor character into this final slot as well.
Rashomon has sadly fallen out of my own rotation a little as it requires some focused rehearsal time to get a grasp on the logistics at play, and the game (as is the case with most replay formats) requires sufficient room to expand which makes it difficult to program when strict time constraints exist. However, I value this game as much for what it teaches about subtext, points of view, active listening and elevating the choices of others as I do for the results it can garner on the stage. Don’t become disheartened if you feel a little stumped or clumsy in your first efforts as the mechanics of the game can put you in your head initially. Perspectives (an earlier Game Library entry you can find here) can serve as a helpful prequel if you’re looking for a user-friendly way to warm-up your improv brain for this particular challenge.
Connected Concept: Point of View