Rhyme Fire-Line provides a low pressure exercise to develop your Rhyming chops. I’ll also use it as a quick warm-up to dust off improv cobwebs before attempting more challenging musical or verse-based work.
This exercise works well in groups of four or five so divide your company into teams accordingly. Each player has a turn in the “hot seat” by facing a small line formed by their remaining teammates. A steady rhythm is established by the hot seat player – “A” in this case. The bank of other players offer up words within the set tempo according to the specific guidelines below. After each new word, Player A responds on the next beat with their own corresponding offer. (For the first round this would look like Player B, Player A, Player C, Player A, Player D, Player A, Player E, Player A and then back to Player B.) Player A remains in the hot seat improvising quick responses to their teammates’ prompts for several rotations. Players then shuffle positions, with Player B now stepping before the line, and the process repeats until everyone has had their turn facing the fire-line.
Phase One: This round is optional especially if your ensemble is familiar with the basic version of the gam (Word Association Fire-Line) but it can prove helpful to return to this classic to firmly establish the underlying mechanics. In this original iteration players in the lineup provide random words and Player A must respond with their own instinctive word associations. It’s helpful for the lineup improvisers not to then word associate with the featured player but rather attempt to truly provide fresh inspirations. So rather than a chain that might go something along the lines of “B: Cat; A: Dog; C: Bone; A: Yard; D: Stick…” you would be more likely to brainstorm “B: Cat; A: Dog; C: Power; A: Electricity; D: Scary…”
Phase Two: Instead of word associating the featured player is now instructed to provide rhymes for each new offer provided by their fellow teammates in the line. As is the case with the above example, players in the feeding positions should strive to be as random as possible rather than lean into obvious patterns or circle around the same series of sounds. In particular, it can become tricky if lineup improvisers inadvertently start to rhyme with Player A’s responses thereby necessitating that Player A rhymes yet another new word with the common ending. So instead of “B: Sap; A: Cap; C: Nap; A: Slap; D: Chap…” a more helpful selection would be “B: Sap; A: Cap; C: Dish; A: Wish; D: Sprinkle…”
Phase Three: This version will look very similar to the above iteration but the small adjustment in intent flexes a different and extremely helpful rhyming muscle. Now feeding players still offer up a rapid fire succession of random words but they strive to get the featured improviser to say a particular word of their choosing. To make that less opaque, Player B might think the word “sprinkle” but rather than say this word they offer up a rhyme (“twinkle,” “tinkle,” “sink hole…”) in the hopes that Player A will now respond with their original choice “sprinkle.” I find this a helpful low stakes interim step towards more intentional target rhyming (the focus of the next iteration) and it also encourages consciously pitching words with accessible rhyming options. There’s no need to stop or comment if the rhyming player offers something unintended as this will disrupt the tempo.
Phase Four: Finally, players explore the concept of more focused target rhyming. Here the caller or facilitator provides a broad category – such as colors, fruit and vegetables, or articles of clothing. For this round, players in the line now pitch words that (hopefully) lead the hot seat player to a rhyme within the given category. So if the group is exploring colors the exchange might look something like this: “B: Clue; A: Blue; C: Snack; A: Black; D: Scary Sprinkle…” If you’re playing with a jaunty tempo – which is the goal – this can place a lot of pressure on the feeder line so players should offer something with no expectation that every set up will land firmly in the provided category.
There will be a hit/miss ratio in this exercise and players should release any expectations of perfection as these will invariably lead to frustration and anxiety. Regardless of what position you are filling, throw out something on the rhythm and then just move on. In addition to sharpening rhyme skills, played with fearlessness Rhyme Fire-Line serves as a palpable reminder that success and failure are innately related in the improvisational pursuit.
Traps and Tips
1.) Rhythm is your friend. This game will quickly descend into chaos if you don’t establish and maintain a clear and consistent rhythm. The tempo should initially be set by the featured improviser so that they can offer a speed that suits their own learning curve and comfort level. Once this is going, however, fellow teammates will probably need to work to keep it consistent as the rhyming player can have a tendency to slow or distort the pace to buy themselves a few seconds when they need it. (Frankly, this happens with the feeder improvisers too!) If you have several groups all playing simultaneously in the same space, clapping to keep tempo can become acoustically problematic and will make it difficult for players to hear each other. I’ll tend to either use gentle finger snaps or even a gestural wrist flip to visually create and sustain the rhythm in these cases. Also be mindful that players don’t crank up the speed accidentally out of misplaced excitement (although this is certainly a fine choice if everyone is on their game and is ready to up the challenge.)
2.) Saying something is your friend. I mention this in my focus notes above but wimping will quickly make the game collapse. There is no denying that this dynamic can prove quite scary – and equally invigorating when you’ve made it through the gauntlet! Rhyming puts us all in our heads a little, especially when it’s the stated focus of the game. There will be (many) moments when the “perfect” rhyme or set up comes to you two seconds after you needed it, and that’s okay. It’s a healthy spontaneous workout to just leap into a word when the rhythm lands on you. If you don’t rhyme or utter something nonsensical, that’s okay too. When you’re a word feeder it’s particularly important that you don’t grind the dynamic to a halt as the responding improviser benefits greatly from the pressure and predictability of the steady rhythm. So just say something. More often than not your instinctual utterance will prove better than you had feared. It’s also more helpful to say something simply and clearly than to fumble with a more complex thought that is less likely to be heard or understood.
3.) Be kind to your friends. It’s important that players set each other up for success. Yes, there will be slips, but players in the lineup shouldn’t consciously pitch words that they know are real stumpers or just plain impossible. Everyone is on the same team. If the featured player is struggling, by all means slow the tempo down until they find a sweet spot that is a little challenging but feels manageable. If they’re struggling with multisyllabic offers, simplify and throw out something more basic. Any air of judgment or competition can quickly degrade the experience, so make sure the process is marked by boundless support. As new players rotate into the hot seat its important that the team resets and allows the fresh blood a chance to find their own pathway to learning and success. Amd when you’re in the hot seat also remember that it’s no small feat offering up new words on cue and, in fact, I’d offer this really does become at least as challenging as the rhyming position in the later rounds.
This sequence of games often results in some rather boisterous energy and laughter as players dance on a proverbial language tightrope. It’s healthy and helpful to joyously acknowledge the beautiful fumbles alongside the flashes of rhyming brilliance as players will surely experience both! This is a lesson that most of us can benefit from relearning on occasion as we pursue our craft.
If you’ve stumbled into this entry without seeing the accompanying “R” is for “Rhyme,” this earlier post linked below includes some helpful basic strategies as well.
Cheers, David Charles.
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Connected Concept: Rhyme