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Books by Daniel J. Wiener
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Games: The Construct of Status
RfG Newsletter, Volume 1, Number 1 Fall, 1991
A construct of great importance to improv and of considerable value to
therapists is "status." Status here does not mean "social
standing" or "occupational prestige." As used by Johnstone
(1979), status refers to what people do, or play, akin
to dominance and submission. Thus, a waitress may play high status (condescension)
while her customer, a physician, may play low status (awkwardness) despite
their opposite social standing.
Seen in this way, human interaction is never "status-neutral"; we are
all constantly adjusting status in relation to our surroundings and to
others. Further, status transactions are territorial, involving the use
of space, gesture, posture, vocal inflection as well as verbal content.
In our experience, shifts in status regularly accompany significant changes
in interaction and that such shifts are always noticed, even when not
Another useful observation concerning status is that many people are generally
more comfortable playing one status position than the other, although
contexts exist in which they will play the non-preferred position. We
surmise that people assume the same status position as they held in their
families of origin and thereafter maneuver to replicate that position
in other systems. Since status is relational it would follow that people
maneuver to get others to assume complementary status, thereby 'giving'
status to others.
Despite the apparent simplicity of this construct, status transactions
are more complex than at first appears. People are frequently unaware
of the status they are playing and are even convinced sometimes they are
playing opposite to their actual status. Johnstone
(1979) thus refers to his own experience:
"In my own case I was astounded to find that when I thought I was being
friendly, I was actually being hostile! If someone had said 'I like your
play,' I would have said 'Oh, it's not up to much,' perceiving myself
as 'charmingly modest.' In reality I would have been implying that my
admirer had bad taste. I experience the opposite situation when people
come up, looking friendly and supportive, and say, 'We did enjoy the end
of Act One,' leaving me to wonder what was wrong with the rest." (p.36)
Matters become still more involved when we realize that people also attempt
to conceal their status by playing opposite to the status they are experiencing;
usually this is unconvincing and, for low-status players important to
point out that playing and shifting status is as natural andattempting
to play high, invites aggression against themselves. Goffman (1959) gives
numerous detailed examples of the intricacies of misleading status performances.
Status games can also be played by agreement, which marks them as playfully
intended, such as when friends display familiarity by insulting one another.
Social groupings of humans and numerous other species display status hierarchies,
both inside their own group ("pecking-orders") and as a group in relation
to other groups. While these have been studied extensively, families appear
to have so many diverse and subtle ways of maintaining hierarchy that
are not readily apparent to non-members, even non-members with the same
class and ethnic background as that of the family.
Status transactions can be complementary when each player acts in conformity
to the status expectations of all the others and conflictual when a player's
actions give or take status unacceptable to any of the others. Two (or
more) players can play high status in a complementary fashion when they
all agree on their mutual worthiness; human nature being what it is, it
is likely that this state of affairs will give way to conflictual transactions
over who is more worthy. Triangling in others (whether actually present
or referred to), who can be assigned 'unworthy' status deflects such competition
between the Worthies; High School students will have no difficulty recognizing
Another familiar principle is that the presence of an audience mediates
the interaction between two players. For example, Alex attacks (lowers)
the status of Ben in order to get the support of an onlooker, Cort, for
Alex's own (high) status. Were Ben to want Cort's support he might engage
in a conflictual transaction by lowering Alex's status or raising his
own; this will probably result in escalating conflict between Alex and
Ben, which has the effect of raising Cort's status. Alternatively, Ben
might engage in a complementary transaction by permitting his own status
to be lowered, calculating that he will gain Cort's sympathy by posing
as the victim of Alex's attack.
Exercises and Games
Eye contact is important when playing status. The high status person
holds direct and steady contact while the low status person frequently
looks away, giving him a shifty-eyed appearance. When introducing this
concept to a group, ask the players to pick a partner and practice maintaining
eye contact, playing alternately high and low. Often there will be a clear
preference for one or the other and a great difficulty in playing the
less familiar status; it feels like putting the wrong shoe on your foot.
People will also have a judgement that one or the other status is wrong;
it is unavoidable for a living being as breathing. Even the highest status
person plays low status to someone or something, and vice versa.
Reading body language is another way of determining status. To play low
status, take up as little space as possible, make little gestures like
pulling at your hair, rubbing your face, fixing yourself up and also make
little, ineffectual noises. High status players take up maximum space
and are relatively inactive.
1. Status Conflict. A game in which two players are both given
enough information to start a scene (character, occupation, setting, etc.)
with the further instruction to play lower (or higher) than the other.
The conflict is immediately palpable to all observing; the effect of playing
the conflict to the hilt is absurd and comic. The value of this game lies
in discovering what it takes to fully commit to a status position.
2. Status Transfer. Ask one player to assume a high status body
and the other low, then to gradually transfer to the opposite status.
This status exploration usually releases a lot of laughter and good fun
as people become more conscious of their daily habits. The transfer is
important because it gives each player the chance to play unfamiliar status.
Once the concept is introduced, ask two players to experiment with a scene
in front of the group. Assign status and give the players character and
place, e.g., A high status criminal and a low status policeman, or a low
status king and a high status court jester, etc. and tell them to play
a scene in which they justify a Status Transfer. There are many variations
on this type of two-person status scene.
3. Unknown Status. This is one of a number of status games played
with four people. Each player in private assigns a status ranking to the
players from "one" to "four" and treats each according to the number given.
For instance, Harry may assign himself the number four; Mary will be his
number one, Jane two and John three. During the scene Harry will defer
to all his partners but to varying degrees. Mary, of course, will have
his unwavering deference, no matter how she behaves. Mary may also have
assigned herself the number four position and will try to raise Harry's
status, much to his dismay. This sort of status "battle" creates a lively
and often funny scene which resembles a slice of life.
4. Exclusion. In this game, each of the four players speaks a nonsense
language called "gibberish," and tries to avoid becoming "iced out" by
the rest of the players. The effort to stay connected with the majority
and avoid exclusion activates the players, causing all manner of negotiations
The "danger" of being excluded shifts from person to person until three
ice out one. The game isn't over until the isolated player accepts his/her
exclusion; some capitulate quickly, some never do. This game is an excellent
teaching device for learning the formation of status hierarchy.
Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York:
Johnstone, K. (1979) Impro. New York: Theatre Arts Books.