Players explore one persona from four different relationship perspectives in this character-building exercise.
A team of five is used with one player serving as the central protagonist and the remaining four waiting “offstage” at the primary compass points (north, south, east and west). Each area and its corresponding player is assigned a specific type of bond: I tend to use familial, love, work, and spatial. Familial consists of blood bonds or similar such as a parent, sibling, or child; love refers to meaningful relationships that are chosen like a significant other, best friend, or crush; work refers to connections forged through employment or educational settings and includes fellow co-workers, classmates, or supervisors; and spatial bonds reflect those that are created through proximity, activities, and shared locations, such as a neighbor, fitness instructor, or supermarket clerk. Four vignettes are then performed, in no particular order, where the compass performers initiate and endow connections on the central protagonist.
Player A serves as the protagonist. Player B (familial) begins a scene as A’s grandparent, welcoming A into their home for their monthly dinner and a game or two of cards. Player C (love) initiates the second vignette as A’s former significant other, returning one last box of discovered property at a favorite restaurant. Player D (work) continues as a struggling colleague who A has been instructed to mentor on the factory floor. Lastly, Player E (spatial) assumes the role of A’s hair stylist – and unofficial counselor – during a regular session. Each scene lasts several minutes before finding a natural button that is then accepted and edited by the new entering player.
The featured player (A) should explore the contrasting facets of their character as revealed through four starkly different relationship energies. If participants are accustomed to Wearing Your (Their) Character Lightly, the experience should encourage a more grounded and multidimensional creation.
Traps and Tips
1.) Logistics. Taking on the role of the protagonist provides a powerful opportunity for growth. Whenever possible, I’ll publicly model the dynamic once in front of the group and then have smaller groups all privately explore the premise, ideally rotating everyone into the hot seat position. Watching too many iterations tends to put players in their heads and can introduce the pitfall of comparison: how can I make my choice even more original than my peers? Such a mindset can inadvertently encourage improvisers to dismiss obvious and grounded choices in lieu of needlessly original ones. Frankly, there are only so many options that belong in each category – spatial can particularly prove to be a stumper – and players shouldn’t think twice about exploring a previously seen relationship in a new and honest way. Unobserved rotations helpfully decrease these pressures.
2.) Tone. Beware of the bulletproof protagonist. If each new vignette merely facilitates another opportunity for cerebral commentary, then old habits will just remain firmly entrenched. It’s in the spirit of the exercise for the “compass” player to make the first few moves in order to establish their endowment intent. The protagonist should give a little generous space to accommodate this process, responding honestly and emotionally rather than immediately assigning buckshot “facts.” Once the most basic foundation has been laid, however, the scene should quickly settle into a more even-handed give and take. Compass players should enter with a rich gift to jumpstart this process but not feel the need to micromanage the outcome. Protagonists should embrace pitched chances to change or reveal heretofore unseen shades and energies.
3.) Material. The basics of this game can obviously be retooled to serve a variety of ends, but I find it useful to think of the resulting scenes as parts of one introductory act rather than an improvised play in totality. When approached with this later mentality, players will often rush to make connections and deploy callbacks. This, in turn, can overly and unintentionally favor the first vignette with subsequent characters feeling the need to keep that initial story building. When all four compass players view their offers as equal starting points, removing any pressure to construct one unified arc, the protagonist becomes much more well-rounded and diverse. By all means incorporate or reference shelved ideas when they are pertinent but relieve yourself of the responsibility to connect all the dots in one linear narrative.
Endowment Circle (here) provides a fast-paced and larger scale exercise that similarly invites character complexity. Subsequently, this earlier entry offers helpful workshopping tips and techniques for the current offering too. Both exercises powerfully investigate the notion that as people we are not one thing but rather shift in subtle and not-so-subtle ways based on our current situations. Characters tend to feel and appear lightly worn when they lack this situational complexity.
While I’ve provided one grouping of relationship types, these bonds or energies can change to suit other training needs. If you’re struggling with caustic conflict, for example, each compass point could be assigned a contrasting positive energy to infuse into the relationship, such as pride, passion, loyalty, and tenderness. Or each scene could incorporate a distinct mantra, essence, or staging challenge…
Cheers, David Charles.
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Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
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Connected Concept: Wearing Your Character Lightly