There is no room to hide in Ritual Scene and players must commit one hundred percent in order for the game to land. Performed without full Presence or with an air of apology, the central dynamic is likely to flounder or whimper away. When attacked with gusto and relish, the results are often surprisingly invigorating and breathtaking!
Players acquire a mundane or everyday activity or chore to inspire their scene, such as washing the dishes or combing your hair. This simple action then provides the roadmap for an epic scene that heightens the task into the grandest and most august of rituals. Generally accompanied by larger-than-life music or a suitably dramatic soundtrack, players break down the action into its constituent elements, making each moment deeply significant and theatrical. Language, if used at all, is featured sparsely or with the emotional intensity of a chant or summoning.
The team explores the ritual of “brushing your teeth.” The scene begins with an empty stage as players begin a steady and ominous percussive drumming that is soon joined by the improvising musician.
Player A is the first to enter the space. With their hands aloft they present an imaginary basin and with great ceremonious precision they slowly march until they are center stage. Here they place the basin down in full view and then slowly walk backwards until they finally drop to their knees in a deep bow.
From the opposite side of the stage, Player B now enters with a heavy water jug. They display it to Player A, the audience, and then to the heavens before making their stately procession to the stowed basin. Once they arrive, with a flourish of music and percussion, they raise the jug and in a sweeping motion fill the previously empty basin. As Player A did before them, they then back carefully away and lower themselves in a prostrate position.
As the music swells once more Player C and D now enter simultaneously but from opposite sides of the stage, one holding the toothbrush, the other the toothpaste tube…
This is a great game and exercise for exploring heightened stakes and developing an organic but unified sense of style. In lieu of a traditional story, the game thrives on breaking down the simple steps of the proffered action and using these as the beats of the dramatic arc. Give each moment its due and sell it for all it’s worth.
Traps and Tips
1.) Slow it down. Rituals, whether secular or sacred, treat each moment with care and there is typically very little superfluous or insignificant movement. Make every offer and choice deliberate and meaningful. Elevate or celebrate the tools or elements needed to complete the assigned task and don’t rush to the ending. Most tasks could be reasonably completed rather quickly; by embracing their ritualistic qualities or potentials, these actions should now feel almost operatic. This format provides a rare opportunity to really indulge and extend.
2.) Break it up. Don’t throw away the theatricality of ceremonial staging, prop reveals and protagonist arrivals. In the toothbrushing example the scene has probably been nearly a minute without the toothbrusher even arriving, and this feels completely in the spirit of the game. The story in a ritual scene really is little more than the sequential steps of the task so the audience is far less interested in what is going to happen than they are in watching how it all unfolds. Part of the scene’s effectiveness, then, is exploring and exaggerating the little rituals that are familiar and making them delightfully strange and new again.
3.) Honor what has come before. Aim to play with the same movement vocabulary and sense of style. If the first entrance is walking-down-the-wedding-aisle slow, then be cautious of upending this choice through carelessness. Ritual innately invites repetition and parallel actions. Just as is the case with more traditional language-based scenes, look both for the deliberate offers and also the delightful accidents that can be accepted by the judicious mind and woven into the fabric of the grand event. This also keeps the scene fresh and avoids the risk of just recycling a short list of tropes while replacing “toothbrush” with the next object du jour.
4.) Give it all you’ve got. Much of the reward of this premise resides in the stark juxtaposition between the banal prompt and the operatic treatment. Avoid undermining this fun with needlessly pedestrian or undersold physical work. One improviser taking on a deadpan energy or air of commentary in an effort to be different or just as a means of remaining personally safe makes it so much more difficult for their teammates to keep the game building towards a scenic crescendo. Without fully present players the scene will rarely flow; when everyone rows in the same direction the ritual can take on a life of its own.
If you are a more verbal-centric improviser, Ritual Scene encourages a whole different style of play that can prove truly liberating. Language can have a place but I’ve found that chanting or keening more opaque sounds (or perhaps just simple singular words) adds powerfully to the piece. If you are more movement-centric then this game likely has your name written all over it! Enjoy.
Connected Concept: Presence