Improv Games:  Blocking (and Accepting) Offers

RfG Newsletter, Volume 2, Number 2, Winter/Spring 1993

The Blocking/Accepting distinction is fundamental to all of improvisation (improv). This broad classification of games and exercises includes those that require or demonstrate the results of the intentional acceptance or non-acceptance (‘blocking’) of offers. By ‘offer’ is meant any communication which signifies, indicates or assures some aspect of social, historical, psychological or physical reality. Defined in this way, it is virtually impossible NOT to make offers on any occasion in which there is awareness on either the sender’s or receiver’s part. As Gregory Bateson (in Steps to an Ecology of Mind) has stated: “it is impossible to NOT communicate.”

Offers are often made intentionally to others, yet there are dimensions to even a deliberate offer which are unintended or outside of the offerer’s awareness. Here we should include offers made to oneself, such as an improv exercise when a person’s spontaneous movement leads to a repeated phrase, or where the words of a song that one is humming to oneself registers on that person’s consciousness to indicate a previously-unaware meaning. Auto-suggestive techniques (Luthe) and self-speech (Vygotsky) are further examples where the self-offer has the purpose of indicating a desired change in affect, cognition or behavior.

The offers of greatest interest to us, however, are ones that are made interpersonally. To initiate ansd progress through a scenario with an intelligible and esthetically satisfying outcome requires some agreement and alignment among the actors regarding place, time, character, intent, and relationship; in other words a (largely) consensual social reality needs to be created and maintained. Notice, however, that dramatic tension results from imperfect alignment; misunderstanding, conflict, incompletely-shared information and manipulation add realism, depth, and “spice” to the result.

Levels of Blocking

Total Blocking is rare in real life; usually, there exists some awareness of the other person which governs the personal space of the actors, their taking turns to speak, and their acknowledgement of the presence or impact of one another. Treating another person as though he doesn’t exist is such a grave violation of ordinary social convention that it is deliberately employed only as a way of destroying another’s identity (or, in several tribal societies, as a way of condenming a person to death).

Conventionally, a profound block might be represented by the following ‘dialogue’ (really a “sequential monologue”):

A: “I’ve just bought a new blue station wagon.”

B: “There are no more pickles in this jar.”

A: “Only mother knows who your father is.”

B: “November was colder than normal.”

Assuming that A and B are not making eye-contact or matching inflection (so as to suggest perhaps, that they are spies communicating in code), each is ignoring the offers implied by the other’s statements.

At another level, consider this dialogue:

A: “I’ve just bought a new blue station wagon!”

B: “Well, It’s really more of a green van.”

Here, the topic and existence of a vehicle is agreed upon. This dialogue is ‘realistic’ to the extent that it features a common status maneuver whereby B raises self and lowers A by disqualifying part of the content of the statement.

Blocking can also occur at the affective level. Consider this example:

A (enthusiastically): I’ve just bought a new blue station wagon!!

B (bored): How very nice for you.

Not only is B refusing A’s emotional offer (enthusiasm) he is not ‘advancing the action’, or contributing anything in return. As a further experiment, try this: arrange for someone to listen to you speak to him/her on a topic that holds great interest for you. Begin speaking while he/she remains emotionally neutral, merely nodding and saying “yes” occasionally. Unless you are only looking for a passive audience for your monologue, I predict that you will experience a sense of burden that increases while it dawns on you that you are carrying a conversational ball that grows increasingly heavier.

Blocking can also occur when one player disqualifies another by body or facial gesture, or by vocal inflection.

Accepting the other’s offer entails a willingness to give up what is often experienced as one’s prerogative to define self as distinct from others — a partial surrender of freedom of choice. That such freedom is largely illusory from another perspective hardly matters – Western, particularly American culture places such a high value on expressing individuality that any choice to forgo this is suspect. Being a “yes-man” has only negative connotations. It may even be that to accept the assertions of another in an unqualified manner invites the original offerer to suspect that he is being mocked, bulled into a too-trusting stance, or in various other ways being duped. Con-men, knowing this, employ a technique called “qualifying the mark” whereby they appear initialy suspicious or reluctant to accept the mark (=sucker/victim)’s offer of funds and have to be “persuaded” to accept the money.

On the other hand, there is an increase in positive emotional energy in having one’s offer fully accepted by another, especially when the other player advances the action by building a further offer upon the initial offer. This can lead to an euphoric experience for both players, as in the following (“Yes-and”) exchange:

A: I’ve just bought a new blue station wagon!!

B: Great! Let’s go for a drive to see Aunt Harriet!

A: Yes, and we’ll have plenty of room to take her all the apples we picked!

B: Of course! And then she’ll bake us some of those fabulous apple pies of hers, too! (etc.)

Since improv suspends the constraints placed on imagination by realism, it is frequently our experience that participants object to our encouragment of “yes, and” for the reason that it isn’t realistic (i.e. that unqualified and uncritical acceptance in the “real world” will lead to delusion, folly, or exploitation. This criticism has a vaild point (you’d be crazy to uncritically accept all real-life offers), yet we are not advocating this, only granting ourselves the opportunity to safely (since it’s enacted in a play-context) explore the freeing of emotions and imagination that results.

In addition to “Yes, But” there are a number of games and exercises that explore the constructive side of blocking.

“What are you doing?” – 2 players, A and B, stand alongside each other. A begins a repetitive motion and B asks: “What are you doing?” A immediately names some activity unrelated to the motion he is doing (thereby blocking his own body-offer) and B begins to move in accordance with A’s stated activity. Now A asks :”What are you doing?” and B must instantly answer with a verbal self-block of his movement. The exercise continues until one breaks the rule, usually by answering with the activity his body is currently carrying out or by being unable to answer at once.

“No, you didn’t.” Here, A begins a ficitious first-person narrative. After about two sentences, B interjects “No, you didn’t” or some other challenge to the content of A’s story. A must at once accept the block and change his story to incorporate B’s contradiction. B continues to interject “No, it wasn’t” or some other negation every couple of sentences. A will find that B’s interjections actually aid his imagination, provided he gives up the need to control the story (which is why this won’t work well with a factual narrative).

“Boris/(Doris)” This complex game can be thought of as a playing of the projection (or catastrophic fantasy) that others are forcing one to cooperate or accept offers. The scene is that of an interrogation, with A as the interrof\gator and B as the suspect. B sits on a stool or armless chair while A paces around him asking questions like: “Are you known as Lefty LaRue?” B answers uncooperatively, or not at all; he looks at the ceiling, insolently tells the interrogator to go to hell, asks the interrogator his name, says, “what if I am?” etc. A now explains that he will be compelled to call on Boris (who is invisible only to the audience), a seven-foot enforcer that demonstrates he means business by roughing up B. (B’s eyes get wide with fright; he acts as though being hauled, to his feet, and strangled, has his arm twisted, etc.) Much shaken, B collapses on his chair and A, acting quite in control, resumes the interrogation. Whenever A isn’t satisfied with B’s answer he motions for Boris to come forward to compel B to cooperate. The scene is usually played to where B eventually confesses all, but it can also develop where Boris is the one beaten up, B never breaks despite fearsome torture, or Boris is bribed to turn on A. Another version of this game is Doris, where seduction takes the place of brutality in advancing the action. And of course, all parts including the imaginary ones, can be played by either gender.

This game is very rich in possible applications (for one thing, young children are fascinated by both roles and thoroughly enjoy interrogating parents). Regarding blocking, B is actually in charge of what Boris does to him, as he can explore the choices of compliance and defiance of A’s questions. On another level there is agreement about the premise of the scene, the roles A and B enact and also the audience (both outside and within the players) to be entertained. If B chooses to resist heroically the effect often becomes tragic or ugly and also feels anti-climactic (due to the action being stuck, rather than advancing towards completion of the story (i.e., the confession).

Accepting all offers is a fundamental rule of improvising, except as in the above exercises where blocking is implicit in the rules. The Therapist/Director will frequently need to coach players to accept offers where they block, unless his sole purpose is assessing the degree of alignment and cooperation between the players. Even then, immediately side-coaching a player to accept an offer just blocked usually permits the game/exercise/scene to continue and adds information regarding whether the blocking player can accept the Therapist/Director’s offer. When the aim includes training players in the use of improv principles, coaching also helps players realize both the extent of their blocking (which they are typically unaware of) and the resulting contrast in affect and energy between blocked and accepted offers.