Shivving, or playful mischief, informs this lighthearted game that also demands active listening, justification and fearless characterization skills. Not to mention it’s a great (albeit whimsical) way to set up a teammate for a truly memorable entrance!
The game can gain suitable inspiration from a location, occupation or perhaps a brief list of initial character quirks or qualities. One player (A) volunteers to serve as the featured character and waits backstage accordingly. Other teammates begin the scene, establishing the CROW elements. Soon, the topic of conversation moves to the absent character and onstage teammates playfully endow a variety of character qualities, usually in a “can you believe that…” gossipy fashion. After a hearty but not overwhelming list of facets has been brainstormed (featuring any offers elicited from the audience beforehand) the discussed character makes a grand entrance usually heralded by the titular phrase, “Here they come…” With assistance from the earlier characters the new arrival strives to embody and justify all the previously named qualities.
Two librarians (B and C) have escaped into their break room from the morning rush. They lock eyes in exhausted solidarity. Player A awaits offstage.
Player B: “I just need to get off my feet for a moment! Those children could take away my will to live.”
Player B slumps in a chair as Player C crosses to the break room counter.
Player C: “I hear you! And would it kill them not to leave their books thrown all over the floor?”
Player C holds up an empty coffee pot.
Player C: “Did you drink the last of the coffee?”
Player B: (slightly panicked) No… I put it on but had to get into the shelves before I got a cup… You don’t think that…”
Player C: (with equal terror) “…David?!?!”
Player B: “I didn’t think he was scheduled today. That was his belching I heard in the teen fiction section.”
Player C: “He must have drank the whole pot. Too much caffeine always gives him uncontrollable gas…”
Player B: “And he’ll be talking a mile a minute. He’s so frenetic even without the coffee…”
Player C: “We’ll be lucky if he’s just talking…”
Player B: “Not the show tunes?!?!”
Don’t overlook the storytelling potentials of the scene nor neglect the joy of some good old fashioned “yes, anding…” as you build the qualities of the offstage character. It’s tempting to just scattershot the most random attributes you can think of, but close listening and extending will result in a highly stylized character that also has some semblance of an inner truth (in the admittedly loosest sense of that term!) It’s common to make the character an unlaudable figure, but there’s no reason the endowing couldn’t also be highly complementary in nature – this could be a helpful take on the game if you’re concerned about mean-spiritedness sneaking in.
Traps and Tips
1.) There’s a fine, fine line… I’ve used a variation on this concept in several original long-form pieces to provide helpful and more grounded backstory for significant characters that need to go the distance. In this original iteration, however, characterization offers have a shivving quality designed to clearly challenge the target player. It’s important to note that there’s a fine, fine line between playful shivving and oppressive pimping. The entering player shouldn’t feel like their awaiting entrance is an impossibility of contradictory or humiliating traits. If the endowing players are getting into double digits in terms of their pitched ideas, you’re heading into particularly challenging waters. While the spirit of the game is to jovially mess with your teammate, ultimately they should enjoy the process. It’s also easy to wander into icky stereotypes if you’re not mindful as well.
2.) Roll up your own sleeves… When you’re playing in the role of the endower – the workmates setting up the challenges in the illustration above – your work is by no means finished when the featured character arrives. It’s in the spirit of the game to give Player A a little space to check off as many of the named attributes as they can upon entering, but the second wave of fun consists of the original teammates now setting up their guest to embody or use any forgotten or previously named qualities in joyful ways. If Player A (as the character) is known for bursting into Broadway musical numbers, for example, it could prove delightful to pepper your dialogue with lyrics to inspire them (especially if this fact also holds true for the performer!) Generally one of the overarching goals of the scene is to successfully see all the endowments hit the stage, so if you proposed something in the preamble that’s been inadvertently neglected, it’s good form to nudge Player A in this direction in a more traditional endowing fashion.
3.) Take the leap… A lot of good faith and empathy typically walks through the door with the absent player as the audience understands the herculean task that awaits. Accept your fate with gusto and good charm as you will further win over the crowd in the process. I particularly enjoy making this character as likeable as possible as it puts any potential offense back on the endowees – “how dare they poke fun of their happy-go-lucky musical-singing coworker?” In my own company, some of us relish the thought of walking through that door into the madness that awaits, while others find much less pleasure when placed under this particular improvisational pressure. For me personally, my attitude about this role (and, frankly, the game in general) varies greatly depending on what kind of week I’m having. Know yourself and your teammates and make sure the bombardment of this shivving-fest is welcome.
4.) Putting it together… There isn’t one guaranteed stock device for wrapping up the fun. Sometimes if one element was initially forgotten and proves particularly difficult to recall, endow and incorporate, this hard-earned moment of jubilant success can be enough to stick the landing. There can also be a charm in having the featured character leave once they’ve been adequately portrayed and then briefly returning to the status quo created at the top of the scene. Generally, however, the scene plays well when attacked like a more traditional endowment game where the audience wants every feature communicated and incorporated with some finesse. Witnessing Player A simultaneously assuming all or the majority of their quirks provides a fitting climax in this regard.
Just as I’m a little torn about the tool of shivving, so too am I a little leery about this particular game. It takes skill to strike the necessary balance between challenge and coercion, silliness and stereotypes, tickling and torture. When I’ve played it in a well-functioning ensemble filled with trust, connection and awareness – I’m thinking of my Gorilla Theatre cast specifically – the process and results have been almost uniformly delightful. I personally wouldn’t be as keen to go on this particular improv journey with a group of players that I don’t know very well yet.
Cheers, David Charles.
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Connected Concept: Shivving