In the movie Being There, Peter Sellers, in his last major role, plays Chance the Gardener, a dim-witted gardener who through a series of accidents ends up being seen as a sage with answers to life’s deepest questions.
Chance the Gardener [Riding in a car for the first time]:” This is just like television, only you can see much further.”
To get a sense of the dialogue and of the other characters’ desperate desires to hear answers where there are none, read this excerpt at IMDB.
Meaning is determined by the audience. As speakers or ‘broadcasters’ we can try to influence the content of messages by our choice of words, context, image, etc. But what the other person hears is what they hear. This is the central conceit of Being There: it is we who decide whether the emperor has clothes or not. Chance is a simple fool. His followers, driven by their own agendas, turn him into a guru.
While I would not want to freight the simple improv game called Oracle with too much meaning, it is fun to explore how easy it is to construct profound-sounding answers even when that answer is generated by a near-random sequence of words. The other lesson this game teaches (as do other games in this series) is: don’t overthink the process. The more you let go, the more fluid and ‘real’ sounding the answers are.
3 – 5 players: one is the interviewer, and the others are clustered together in some kind of shape like a totem pole or a many-armed divinity. This grouping is referred to as the oracle. The interviewer collects random questions from the audience which s/he asks the oracle on the audience’s behalf. The oracle gives the answer to the question by having each person in the group speak one word at a time in sequence. The goal is to speak as fluidly as possible, and with as close to correct grammar as possible.
Interviewer: “O Oracle, what will Brian and Jessica do after they leave the workshop this afternoon?
Oracle: “Brian… and… Jessica… will… go… to…. a…. restaurant… and… explore… new…. possibilities!”
Even the members of the ‘oracle’ never know what the answer will be because the response is fully improvised.
From an improv perspective the primary function of this game is to build fluidity and remove hesitation. As a member of the ‘oracle’ group, if you try to outguess where the answer is going, you will wreck the rhythm of the response. Instead of sounding like one smooth sentence spoken by different people, it will sound like a disjointed string of words separated by pauses.
Here are some other take-aways for this game (from the perspective of the people playing the oracle):
- Letting go is better. The more you try to control the flow and humour in the oracle’s response, the more choppy and less funny the answers are. This is a great lesson for writing and public speaking. Efforts to control how you sound and ‘shape’ your persona in the world often result in the opposite of their intended effect. You come across as less interesting, and less credible than if you are true to yourself.
- You can’t control and participate fully at the same time. As a participant, if your brain is busy trying to outguess where your team-mates’ responses are going, you can’t listen well at the same time. And if you aren’t listening, you will probably wreck the grammar of the response by inserting inappropriate words. Does that sound like it might be a useful lesson in good communication in general? You can be a good listener, or you can actively control the conversation. You can’t do both.
- Rhythm matters. Like the ball-toss warm-up or the Clap Snap Free Association warm-up, if the whole group can let go, the rhythm of the game will make ‘getting it right’ easier. This is a powerful lesson to learn when you are in brain-storming exercises, or even when coming up with written content by yourself. When I taught creative writing one of the exercises I found very effective was called Rhythmic Writing, where the participants have to write a word on the beat established by the instructor or a metronome. What using rhythm does is short-circuit the critic in us, or in our groups. Critical thinking is important in the research and editing phases of any process, but it can be a choke-point during the creative phase.
Want to take the blah-blah-blah out of your next retreat or management seminar? To learn how an improv workshop with me can do that,contact me at email@example.com. Improv takes great communication and management strategies,and makes them real and unforgettable.