Improv 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 being acknowledged.
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 and attempting 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 this pattern.
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.
Status 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 and maneuvers.
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: Doubleday.
Johnstone, K. (1979) Impro. New York: Theatre Arts Books