Game Library: “Neighbors”

Depending on the age and comfort level of your players, Neighbors can provide a lighthearted “ice breaker” or an opportunity for more Vulnerable sharing and ensemble building alongside the fun. This exercise requires moving quickly across the circle so may not be suitable if troupe members have mobility issues or the thought of bumping into each other a little causes stress. Identity Circle provides an alternate in such cases, although this option (you can read about here) tends to get more intense.

The Basics

Players form a circle with one volunteer (A) starting in the center. If you’re playing in a larger group, it’s often helpful for everyone to place a shoe or similar as a clear indicator of each spot on the outer rim. Player A’s goal is to gain a spot on the outside of the circle. To achieve this end, they ask other random players, “Do you like your neighbors?” The recipient of this question has two possible responses. If they answer “No,” then the players to their immediate left and right must quickly exchange places, thus leaving a brief opening for the center player to occupy a spot on the perimeter. If the questioned player replies “Yes…” then they must complete the phrase “…but I don’t like people who…” The end of the sentence should provide a category that the speaker does not embody themselves. Examples might include: “… but I don’t like people who… have traveled overseas” or “… have siblings” or “… are good at mathematics.” Once the category has been announced, anyone who satisfies this condition (has traveled internationally, has siblings, or considers themselves as good at math…) must now quickly leave their current spot and find a new vacated home. If players have an option, this new spot shouldn’t be immediately to their left or right but rather across the circle. The central player similarly tries to occupy a new home before the circle is reformed. If they are successful, the new player without a spot becomes “in.” Regardless of the outcome, this center players now continues asking fellow teammates, “Do you like your neighbors?”

The Focus

As players become more comfortable with each other, they may become inclined to share more personal facts and feelings. With younger improvisers, remaining on the level of “…I don’t like people wearing blue” might actually be advisable. Ether way, the game shouldn’t be used to reify cliques or potentially ostracize or isolate company members, and if in doubt, players needn’t disclose (or be pressured to disclose) anything that makes them uncomfortable on any level whatsoever, so discourage any answer “policing.”

Traps and Tips

1.) Why mark the various spots in the circle with shoes or similar? Every now and then, a response will prove so universal that the vast majority of the circle will need to change spots. The pertinent speaker should never move (as they shouldn’t belong to the category they provide) but if essentially everyone else is moving it quickly becomes impossible to ascertain what was and what wasn’t a legitimate spot on the periphery. If you’re outdoors, a cone or similar could serve this function, and if removing shoes doesn’t sound like your jam, I’ve also just marked each spot with a piece of paper or book bag.

2.) What happens if just one player (or no-one at all) belongs to the named category? These are both reasonably rare occurrences but it’s good to have a clear strategy in place. If only one player moves, you can use this as an opportunity for them to quickly “tell the story” behind this factoid or feeling. You can use this same device for the initial respondent if no-one moves as this means they have stumbled into a rare fact that unifies the entire ensemble. I’ll typically have the player who offered the category become “in” now, largely so that the exercise doesn’t become skewed by friends trying to come up with such specific responses that will only apply to one teammate: “Yes, but I don’t like anyone whose middle name is Alfred…” To maintain the playful spirit of the game, these moments to share the story behind the fact should be completely optional and free from coercion.

3.) How do you balance competitiveness with ensemble building? Some player demographics are more prone to lean into the “winning” aspect of the game than others. When played with too much gusto, the exercise can devolve into a full-contact sport as players almost wrestle to secure a new home. This energy can quickly discourage full participation, especially from those more inclined to introversion or with larger personal bubbles. Promote playfulness but stress that everyone should feel safe and welcome to participate on all levels. The exercise will wilt if it really becomes about beating others rather than learning about and connecting to your fellow players. And there’s something powerful about modeling and embracing “losing” with good cheer and generosity as well.

4.) What does wimping generally look like in this exercise? There’s unquestionably a risk in answering the repeated question with a “Yes, but…” as this now requires the speaker to make a specific choice that will probably reveal something a little personal. While the launching phrase is in the form of the paradigmatic wimp, “Yes, but…” responses are the strongest acceptances in this particular exercise as they facilitate action and connections. On the contrary, a long string of “Nos” that just trigger movement from your immediately adjacent teammates quickly becomes a wimping choice. When this answer becomes the norm rather than an unexpected twist, it relieves the speaker from contributing in a more meaningful way.

In Performance

I particularly enjoy the combination of physical play and more earnest sharing that this exercise affords. Unlike Identity Circle – that can easily expand into a more significant event – Neighbors also retains its usefulness when deployed as a shorter warm-up.

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Vulnerability

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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