Patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time…
Carrying on a conversation with a customer while preparing their complicated order at the counter…
Calling in sick when you are actually on your way to the beach for the day…
Coming up with a new idea when all around you people are trotting out clichés…
Throughout life we are asked to do more than one thing at once, and be creative about it to boot. To do any of those things successfully requires that we get past the normal ‘grooves’ of behaviour that are our first instincts.
There are times when the comforting rituals of our lives are the only thing that keep us energized and grounded. That is why both European and Asian monastic traditions often have rules that govern every aspect of daily behaviour. Knowing exactly what is going to happen next on the mundane level frees the mind to focus on spiritual matters.
At other times however, unexamined habits, rituals, and patterns become traps. Mind and body go through moments in life with repetitive behaviours and responses that are barely more than tics. And in any environment where creativity and fresh, awake responses are critical, that kind of autopilot is crippling.
There are a group of games in theatre called dissociation games. These are used to help us break the habitual associations between words, images, and actions. Why are these valuable? Because if all we are able to do on stage, or in any creative environment, is go for the ‘automatic’ response to any suggestion, the situation becomes staggeringly dull. If for every time I said ‘shovel’ in a mime exercise, your only creative response was to mime digging actions, I don’t see any acting awards in your future. If every time your team at work asked you “How are we going to solve this problem?”, and your only response ever is “Lets form a committee”, you will get stale results at best.
Dissociation games help us practice breaking those habits. One of the simplest games is to ask a participant in a group to say a string of words. The catch is each word may have no obvious connection with the previous one. Each time two ‘associated’ words are uttered, the group shouts “Die!” and the next person starts. For example, if a person said “Orange, salt, engine, piston” the group shouts “Die!” at piston, and the next person gives it a try. To take it from a warm-up game to a competition, you simply have someone keep score, counting the number of unrelated words each person strings together.
A more complex disassociation game is “What are You Doing?”
What Are You Doing?
Have everyone in the group pair off. One player in each pair mimes a simple activity. The other player asks “What are you doing?” The first player responds by stating an activity that is anything but what they are actually doing but continues to mime the original activity. The second player then mimes whatever activity the first player described, and is in turn asked by the first player “What are you doing?”, and also responds with an unrelated activity, which the first player now starts to mime. There may be no break in the miming, regardless of what is being said.
Player 1: (Mimes eating an apple)
Player 2: What are you doing?
Player 1: (Continues to mime eating the apple) I’m tying my shoelaces.
Player 2: (Gets down to mime tying shoelaces)
Player 1: (Still eating the apple) What are you doing?
Player 2: (still tying laces) reading a book.
Player 1: (switches from eating to reading) What are you doing?
When you play this game for the first time, you will be surprised at how challenging it can be to mime doing one thing, while forcing your brain to name a different activity.
The genesis of this game is the need to avoid ruts on the improv stage. It is an exercise in staying off autopilot because it forces you to say anything but the obvious.
The game also supports the development of miming skills. Great improvisational mimes can continue to walk through a door, drive a car, or eat a meal while responding to all kinds of verbal cues but not changing what their bodies are doing. This is one situation where multi-tasking really is a good thing.
You can tell a pair of players has truly gotten to the place when their bodies are automatically responding to their partners’ offers while their minds continue to interact on a separate verbal track. The evidence of this is a complete absence of hesitation. Both the mimed actions and the verbal responses are committed to in regular, rapid-but-relaxed rhythm that is similar to the one in the ball tossing game.
As a basic but energetic warm-up game, there are not a lot of deep take-aways here. When I do this with groups, there are a few points I do make:
- We think too much. This game is effective when the players keep it simple. Don’t try to outthink the process and come up with clever connections. Mime the activities simply and economically. State the second activity that comes to your head (for a long time the first activity that comes to your mind will be the one you are doing!). Self-censoring is one of the primary impediments to true brainstorming and creative development. Stop filtering and start talking.
- Jump out of the rut. With practice you will be able to come up with activities beyond the obvious. Like the ‘Hundred Uses for a Chicken’ exercise, allowing this exercise to go on just a little bit past the point of being easy forces your ‘reach’ to go deeper. After the first few iterations you will have gone through eating, reading, walking, sweeping… then what? Then you start to reach for those places that will actually result in interesting scenes during real improv.
- Improv in Heels: Exit Game
- Improv in the Cubicles: The Oracle
- Improv in a Suit: Three of These Things…