Game Library: “Zones”

The central conceit of Zones encourages players to construct a detailed Where that, in turn, necessitates skillful justifications and imaginative stage movement.

The Basics

There are several variations of this basic premise that all involve dividing the available playing space into distinct areas. I’m assuming for this description a reasonably robust proscenium floorplan that could accommodate four clear square “zones” upstage left and right and downstage left and right respectively. In a smaller space you might want to opt for three columns or strips that face the audience stage left, center stage and stage right. Whatever your preferred orientation, be sure that the zones are clearly marked – placing cones or small blocks as boundary markers should suffice. The audience then provides four random contrasting emotions (or one for each area). Each emotion is clearly assigned to one particular zone. For the scene that follows, players must experience and express the emotion that corresponds to their current stage position. All movement and emotional shifts must be justified.


The four emotions “fear,” “joy,” “infatuation” and “frustration” are assigned to the upstage right, upstage left, downstage right and downstage left zones, and “apartment” serves as the basic premise. Company members ready the stage in the countdown transition, placing a couch downstage center (half in the infatuation and half in the frustration zones) and a couple of stools by a kitchen counter upstage left (in the land of joy). As the scene begins, Player A is discovered behind the kitchen counter preparing some bread and cheese. A playful tune plays on their speaker system, and they bob along to the rhythm. They are in their happy place.

Player B arrives outside the apartment door positioned upstage right. It quickly becomes apparent they have forgotten or lost their keys… again. They don’t want a confrontation. They timidly call out from behind the door.

Player B: “Can you let me in, Amanda?”

Player A: (without skipping a beat or changing their tone) “I left it open for you!”

Player B doesn’t really like the sound of this – how long has their door been left unlocked? They enter and cautiously stow their bag upstage right.

Player A: “I’m making us a snack!”

Player B: (on edge) “What is it?

Player B moves now to the stage right edge of the couch as A responds.

Player A: “Fondue… it’s your favorite.”

Now in the land of infatuation on the couch, Player B smiles.

Player B: (kicking off their shoes with delight) “I thought I could smell it in the hallway.”

Player A has assembled some nibbles on a platter and happily carries it to the couch, although as she enters the frustrating zone, she notices B’s discarded shoes on the floor…

The Focus

The more you invest in shaping the location, the more your characters will have motivations to move around the space, and the more likely this staging will trigger dramatic emotional changes.

Traps and Tips

1.) Draw your boundaries. Make your areas as distinct and clear as possible. If players and the audience are unable to easily discern which characters are in which areas, then the game will become muddied. If you’re so inclined, marking the boundaries with twine or chalk proves particularly effective although be careful you’re not creating a tripping hazard in the process. There’s also an art to eliciting and assigning the various emotions. Avoid placing moods that are too similar in adjoining zones (or largely synonymous emotions in general) as much of the entertainment comes from the sudden and stark emotional shifts.

2.) Set the scene. You can lay a lot of helpful groundwork by giving thought as to your location and how to arrange your playground pieces. (A location serves as my preferred scenic prompt for this reason.) Heed Spolin’s advice and quickly establish several paradigmatic set pieces – whether these have real stand-ins or are purely conjured. Placing the couch, for example, over two emotional zones provides the backdrop for a promising game later. Doorways or points of entrance should be thoughtfully placed as well and clearly in the territory of a particular energy.

3.) Justify the emotions. Obviously characters need to justify each sudden shift in their emotional climate. Emotions needn’t all be played at their most extreme level immediately, and justifications shouldn’t be purely verbal in nature either. Player A’s dancing while cooking is likely as effective an embodiment of joy as anything they might just proclaim. Especially if you find yourself inhabiting one zone for a lengthier period of time, make sure you explore different facets or shades of the required feeling.

4.) Justify the staging. It can be tempting just to wander to the area of the stage that allows you to take on the emotion that you most want to play in the moment – and a little of this strategy played aptly will serve you and the scene – but aimless strolling or just leaping inexplicably into new areas without any pertinent motivation soon becomes tiring to watch. Hence the import of a well-designed set. Use the various set pieces to provide rationales for your movement. Without the door, couch, and counter, our roommates would start in a nowhere land. As new furnishings and props are added – A’s snack platter, B’s bag at the door and shoes on the floor – new opportunities will arise to playfully move the characters through the space.

In Performance

Be on the lookout for insidious wimps: stubbornly staying put in the same spot even when the action would naturally have you move, or, on the other extreme, casually passing through all the zones repeatedly so you don’t have to really dig into any emotional truth or intensity. Take the risk of just using the stage as you would in any other scene, crafting interesting stage pictures while engaging in relevant actions or activities. Then, when you find yourself in a new zone the audience can revel alongside you in your struggle to figure out why your mood has now changed. If you always engineer these moves, the danger and payoff of the scene unfortunately declines markedly.

I first encountered Zones as an emotional game, and this provides the foundation for the version I’ve described above. The conceit can also readily house other playful categories such as styles, time periods, animal essences, and status configurations. The mechanics remain largely the same, as does the usefulness of a well-etched location.

Cheers, David Charles.
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Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Where

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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