Improv Games:  Giving up Over-control

RfG Newsletter, Volume 3, Number 1, Fall, 1993

“Over-Control” refers to the dynamic whereby one or more persons strive to alter the behavior of others beyond what is functionally neccessary to their relationship. At the core of the following games and exercises is the device of not allowing one player the use of a faculty that is under the control of another player. In order to play the scene the players must cooperate in an unfamiliar way, requiring them to experience a novel type of interdependence. This format is paricularly useful for demonstrating the importance of underlying over-controlling in an established relationship, since clients are usually unaware of its extent.

The Blob

This exercise is also known as “Speaking in One Voice.” Two or more players link arms in a line around each other’s waists or shoulders, moving and speaking in unison as a single person (the Blob), either to the another Blob or in response to questions from the audience. Blob members are instructed neither to lead nor follow but to speak simultaneously while maintaining eye contact with one another, although this instruction is an ideal rather than what actually happens most of the time. When the Blob moves, all its members are part of its body, with the players on the ends supplying the arms and hands. This is a elementary improv that, nonetheless, calls for the same elusive mutuality of “Mirrors,” “Verbal Mirrors,” and “Simultaneous Leaving.”

The Therapist/Director should encourage the Blob to speak more rapidly so that there are mix-ups in which some words are garbled. In doing so, this becomes a good exercise to decondition players from the fear of failure, since speaking different words simultaneously is no one player’s fault. Screwing up good-naturedly in the company of others actually promotes a bonding experience among players and between players and the audience (who actually want to see things screwed up).

Poet’s Corner

Two players, one a poet from another planet or country, and the other a translator, take the stage. The poet, speaking gibberish (nonsense speech) while performing broad and varied body movements, pauses periodically to allow the second player to “translate” the poem. The “poet” need not know anything but is free to move and make sounds at will at first; later, he attempts to incorporate the “translation” into his gesturing and vocalizing. The translator, taking abstract visual and sound cues from the “poet,” speaks whatever comes into his/her head, creating a “poem” of seemingly great philosophical depth and merit; both are loudly applauded for courage, if not for literary ability.

The satisfaction of this exercise lies in its capacity to please the audience (which includes the players themselves) by adopting a confident and vigorous stance. Actually, the players can hardly fail to create the event of a “poem,” since what an audience expects from a poetry reading requires a minimum of structure and any apparent mismatch between the length of a turn of gibberish and its “translation,” or between the antics of the poet and the contents of the “translation,” adds to the amusement. When the exercise goes well, however, the players will experience that they have co-created the story of the poem.

Puppets

One player (the puppeteer) moves the body of another (the puppet) who is giving a lecture on a supposed field of expertise, and who is incorporating these body offers into the talk. The puppet is not limp, but holds his/her body where it is put until the puppeteer changes the position. Any repetitive motion begun by the puppeteer is continued by the puppet until halted by the puppeteer. Both players influence each other and accept offers, thereby taking the burden off one another, and freeing themselves from prepared ideas so that they can respond to what is happening in the present moment. Scenes involving two puppets may also be played.

Children appear fascinated with this game, particularly when they get to manipulate their parents as puppets. I have found that children between the ages of four and nine nearly always try getting their parents in trouble, often by putting a finger up the nose of the puppet. As one of the sociological functions of play is to sanction forbidden behavior by providing a special context for it (such as Days of Fools and Lords of Misrule in the highly hierarchical medieval societies); because of this play-context, parental authority is not truly undermined.

Arms-Through Puppets

This game features the first player, standing or seated, playing a scene with his arms behind his back while a second player puts her arms through the armpits of the first from behind, keeping her head out of sight below his shoulders. (The gender of the players is irrelevant, but the height difference between players makes the seated version more versatile). This game can be played as a “solo” lecture to an audience, or as two characters in a seated “experts interview” scene. The first player attempts to play the scene as “normal” at first, although his arms seem to have a life of their own, making inappropriate and/or distracting gestures which have to be justified. The second player aims to get the first playfully into trouble and can also use small items from the pockets of a jacket worn by the first player for that purpose.

Dubbing

In this game, the on-stage players have control of their bodies but their voices are supplied by another player off-stage; on-stage players lip-synch what their off-stage voices are saying. In the easier version, one on-stage and one off-stage player co-tell a third-person narrative, starting from physical movement. In a more advanced version, a scene is played between two or more on-stage players, each with his own off-stage voice.

Possible Origin of the Dubbing Game, According to Larson

There is a greater tendency for the voice player to offer sexual, scatological or aggressive offers in “Dubbing” scenes than in games where the voice-player’s body is on stage; the quasi-anonymity seems to bring out such “naughtiness.” Sometimes this is done playfully to get the body-player into trouble. “Dubbing” scenes in which the partners play one character are useful for real-life couples who can experience a different sort of shared control in their relationship.