Game Library: “On the Back Word Endowments”

Secrets are at the core of this spirited endowment game that requires players to simultaneously wear the hats of endowers and endowees.

The Basics

While players are sent out of the playing space so they cannot hear, an array of words are obtained from the audience, one for each of the team members. These words are written clearly on sheets of paper, cardboard or similar. When the team returns, they face the back wall and other improvisers tape one word onto the back of each player as the game title would suggest. It’s important that these are fastened in such a way that players cannot see their own word. During the following scene – inspired by a new ask-for that is typically unconnected to the elicited words – players strive to learn and say their assigned words while, at the same time, providing clues as to the hidden words of their teammates. The scene ends when everyone has been successful in this charge or a time limit or clear story resolution has been reached.


While outside the theatre, players are assigned four random words from the audience, “fortune,” “insensitive,” “skyscraper,” and “philanthropy.” When the players return, these words are taped to their backs, Player A receiving “fortune” and so on down the line. An end of the year teacher’s party serves as the premise. As the scene begins, players mull around a snack table clearly eyeing and reacting to each others’ words. Player A, taking on the part of the principal, approaches Player B.

Player A: “It’s hard to imagine this school without you next year. 44 years in the profession! That’s remarkable.”

Player B: “I’m looking forward to seeing what the next chapter of my life holds.”

Player A: “Look, I feel the need to apologize again. I really should have made a bigger deal of your retirement.”

Player B: “You’re new to the principal’s office. I know it wasn’t personal.”

Player C, who has been listening, chimes in…

Player C: “We should have made a bigger deal of you, Isabella. 44 years is quite the accomplishment.” (pointedly to A) “And heavens know none of us do this for the money.”

Player A: “I know, I know. I should have been more thoughtful. You can say whatever you want about me. I won’t disagree…”

The Focus

Alongside the fun visual component of characters moving through the action with paper on their backs and straining to see each others’ target words, this scene is just an amped up endowment game, albeit a more complex one than average with clues moving in multiple directions at once. General endowment best practices apply as a result, such as not saying others’ “on the back” words, and attempting to lead players to the “correct” answer through subtle inference (at least initially) rather than a “fill in the blank” or charades mentality.

Traps and Tips

1.) Remember the logistical needs. As is often the case with endowment formats, there are some unique intricacies when it comes to setting the game up. On a purely material level you’ll need to preset appropriate paper or cardboard stock, thick markers and reliable tape that will stick to the clothing of your players for the duration of the scene. The game loses some charm if the audience is unable to also see the words throughout the action so write accordingly, especially if you’re in a larger performance space. A team of three or four works well; more than that and the resulting scene can tend to become epic, perhaps painfully so. It’s helpful to elicit a variety of words in terms of type, length and challenge. Technically, they need to legibly written on the papers, so anything too long will cause issue. Artistically, it’s nice to have a word (or two) in the mix that is attainable so that there is the likelihood of a victory in the early stages of the scene.

2.) Remember, you’re an endower. As players explore the scene all the while searching for clues as to their own hidden word, it’s easy to forget that you should also be actively providing help to your teammates. Part of the fun of the first phase of the game is watching players jostling to read each others’ words, so make sure you have at least one word front of mind that you can work towards. Focus is particularly important: your intended partner needs to know that you’re offering them assistance (as opposed to just launching clues into the ether.) I’ve found it a useful strategy to muster the team’s resources towards one word and player at a time, even if this shifts multiple times from player to player as characters come and go or if the current line of inquiry proves unsuccessful. If you find yourself needing to break down an unfamiliar or multisyllabic word into smaller constituent parts, this tactic is particularly critical. There is entertainment value in an initial scattershot approach with everyone working at cross purposes but this rarely holds interest or utility in the long-term.

3.) Remember, you’re an endowee. And the opposite holds true as well – don’t lose sight of the fact that teammates are trying to endow your hidden word. Remain attentive for unexpected or peculiar phrasing or vernacular that is likely nudging you towards your intended destination. As is the case with all endowment frames, avoid a “guessing” mentality and language: “is my word ‘fortune?'” Make sure you’re responding through the lens of your character: “I really do have great fortune when it comes to friends.” And be wary of letting the uncertainty of your goal infect every choice you make or line you utter: as always, make big choices unimpeded by the fear of being “wrong.” A predictable but effective scenic button can consist of everyone confidently utilizing their assigned word in back-to-back sentences in quick succession regardless of whether or not they are all actually known.

4.) Remember, you’re in a scene. A playful panic can pulse just under the surface of this format if you’re not mindful, and that usually isn’t a great energy from which to construct grounded scene work. Take the time to set up strong CROW elements – every line needn’t be a clue or response to one, especially initially. Make sure characters are going on an interesting journey separate (but perhaps connected) to the game conceit. Dynamic and clear relationships also help steer the focus around the stage, as does a central action or dramatic goal. Excited overtalking easily emerges so avoid crowding the stage or find ways to fade into the background when you’re not actively needed. Particularly if you’ve already determined your assigned word it’s a generous to cede the stage to others still engaged in the struggle for knowledge unless you’re sitting on the next needed move or piece of information. Well-timed exits and entrances will serve just as in any other scenic exploration.

In Performance

If endowment games are a newer addition to your repertoire, review my earlier Game Library post on the format Naive Expert here for additional thoughts and pointers. I’m not sure if I’d recommend this current offering unless your company already has a strong sense of the foundational skills involved as it involves a lot of shifting focus and multitasking that in adept hands creates enthralling controlled chaos, but in less able hands just results in chaos of the everyday nontheatrical variety!

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Secrets

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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