Game Library: “High Card”

You’ll need a traditional deck of playing cards for this experiential game that examines how Status influences our social interactions and relationships.

The Basics

The facilitator selects a large public setting or scenario and players each privately draw a card that will determine their status: an ace representing the highest status, and a two representing the lowest.

Phase One

Players should look at their own card and then stow it safely away so that no-one else can see it. For the duration of the all-play scene, they should endeavor to subtly and realistically explore and exert this status when communicating with others.

Phase Two

A new setting is obtained and the cards are shuffled and redistributed. Now players cannot look at their own card but must display it on their person in such a way that others can see their assigned status. During this second exploration, players should now endow and bestow the appropriate status configurations on those they meet, all-the-while assessing and accepting their own place in the assigned pecking order.


Some chairs are scattered throughout the space to resemble the basic configuration of a high school cafeteria. Players engage in everyday activities and conversations with preassigned statuses and self-assigned characters.

The Focus

If your ensemble is unfamiliar or unpracticed when it comes to status work it may prove helpful to initially explore this dynamic in a more extreme scenario, such as a Renaissance city square complete with the highest royalty and lowest beggar. Generally, however, the process and overall experience benefits from a closer-to-home setting that allows for the examination and deployment of more subtle status moves and adjustments.

Traps and Tips

1.) Play. Keep your focus on your scene partners. As Keith Johnstone reminds us, status is something we do, so don’t strut around trying to be your status. Rather, engage in real conversations, explore honest needs, and try to achieve simple goals while letting your known or suspected status infuse your interactions. Also remember that status and social rank or class are not synonymous: the cafeteria cook may reign supreme over all their colleagues, especially if the scene takes place in their domain, or be a social outcast rejected by students and coworkers alike (or anything between these stark poles.)

2.) Assess. While you play, be sure to assess the subtle and not-so-subtle signals you are receiving from others. An “ace’ is usually easy to spot and to adjust your behavior accordingly: smaller differences between you and your fellow improvisers’ cards – an eight and nine, for example – require a much more nuanced understanding and application of the core concepts. Settled status relationships may also be thrown into turmoil with the simple act of a new character arrival or departure. Strive to maintain the social façade at all times – if you pull back the curtain and start flagrantly guessing the hierarchy or naming status maneuvers, you’ll create little of value.

3.) Apply. Particularly when playing the second iteration, take the risk of being changed by the way others are treating you. Don’t settle into a stance or belief and then coast for the remainder of the experiment. Test your theories, adjust your tactics, and then test again. Can you get away with sitting at the proverbial or literal “cool kids’ table?” If you initially failed in this pursuit can you use a different tactic and try again? Even if your initial assessment of your spot in the pecking order was correct, this doesn’t mean your character isn’t trying to change their lot in life.

4.) Challenge. It is very easy to fall into character clichés, especially if you find yourself at one of the extreme ends of the status spectrum. High status characters needn’t be aloof, demanding, or loud-mouthed: low status personae don’t have to be servile, agreeable, or wallflowers. If you’re encountering this particular exercise again (or concept in general) raise the stakes by exploring a character whose status portrayal doesn’t neatly fall into widely held tropes or stereotypes. How is an unctuous “king” perceived, or a self-assured “three?” What happens when you starkly contrast your assigned status with your character’s known role, wealth, or occupation?

5.) Debrief. At the conclusion of each phase I instruct players to silently form a line from perceived lowest to highest status. (In the second phase, I’ll tell improvisers to remove and pocket their card thirty seconds or so before wrapping up the game in this way so it’s not just a simple matter at looking at others’ cards in the lineup.) There’s certainly delight if the ensemble is largely correct in their order, but regardless of their overall “success” take a few minutes to discuss the experience. Why did players correctly or incorrectly place themselves where they did? What signals did they receive or send that supported this decision? How is their understanding of status enriched and deepened? Furthermore, it’s eye opening to reflect on the distinction between asserting your status (phase one) and being completely dependent on others to know your place (phase two).

In Performance

I describe exercises as experiential when they don’t assume an audience. Subsequently, there’s no need to worry about avoiding split focus, crafting linearity, or building to a unified scenic climax. In fact, such macro improv concerns can subvert the gentler exchanges that are the bedrock of the game. When we take these skills onto a traditional or not-so-traditional stage, however, it’s important to remember that our audiences are assessing and assigning status positions based on the action just as the players did in their own private explorations. In these theatricalized situations, focus breaches and contests will very much influence how status flows and is perceived by your audience.

The Game Library is booming with well over 100 detailed game descriptions and performance tips. You can access it here.

Cheers, David Charles.
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Scott Cook
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Status

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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