Carrie and I were talking about funerals and improv games yesterday and came up with the seed of this idea, which I’ve further embellished. I think very slowly and writing the idea out like this helps clarify it in my mind, so this is really a note to myself. It hasn’t been play-tested yet–although for all I know it already exists out there and I’m reinventing the wheel–but feel free to try it and tell me how it works!
This is a listening game, intended to practice listening skills and scene-thinking skills. It goes like this:
Start with three people on stage designate one of them to be the absent friend, who goes goes off to the side.
The other two ask for a suggestion from the audience as usual and start a two-person scene, but in it their absent friend comes up in conversation. The suggestion from the audience should probably be asked for after the friend has been selected.
The friend, after listening a bit, can start to comment on what the two players on stage are saying. The players cannot hear the friend, but the friend can hear the players. This idea started out with Carrie and I discussing a funeral scenario, with the spirit of the dead person listening in to conversations about them. There’s no reason the game couldn’t be played that way, but I think generalizing it to any third party–who might be a relative, a co-worker or boss, or whatever, rather than just a friend–is a good idea. But they are “listening in spirit”.
This allows the friend to mess with the scene. To make it work the friend has to listen carefully to what the people on stage are saying, and the players on stage have to listen to the friend’s contributions and see how they fit in with the scene. Is it information they know, or is it something they don’t? This can be signaled with things like, “Man, you know I hate red wine!” as the players discuss what to buy their absent friend as a birthday present, for example.
The scene should run two or three minutes, and in some cases the friend might come in at the end. If they do enter the scene at the end, the friend behaves as if they haven’t heard any of the previous conversation. They were listening in spirit, not in fact!
One of the challenges of this game is that it’s very talky, so players get extra points for maintaining a high level of activity on stage.
Imaginary example. Players are Bob and Alice, friend is Mal (these are the standard names from cryptography discussions, where Bob and Alice are trying to communicate and Mal is trying to listen in.)
Bob and Alice ask “What’s something you had to eat today?” and someone in the audience shouts: “CABBAGE!” so they go with that.
Alice (making hoeing motions): These cabbages are really growing quickly.
Bob (making watering motions): It’s the organic gluten free vegan fair trade spring water I’m giving them.
Alice (picking up a bag of fertilizer and strewing it around): More like this great new chemical fertilizer Andy bought.
Bob: That stuff is poison! Andy’s just a shill for Big Fertilizer. Ever since he got that job with Monsanto he’s been saying all kinds of crazy stuff.
Alice: The cabbages agree with Andy, Uncle Fred.
Bob: I know he’s your fiance’ Frieda, but in this family we’ve always been organic.
Mal: Like I didn’t see you pigging out on a Big Mac last week, Fred.
Alice: He’s a great gardener.
Bob: Anyone can be a great gardener if they’re willing to dump chemicals all over the place.
Alice: Really Uncle Fred? I thought you said chemicals were poison!
Mal: You tell him!
Bob: Let’s not fight about it. You love him and he loves you, and that’s what really matters, I guess.
Alice: I… I guess I love him.
Bob: You guess? If it’s love, you’d be sure.
Alice: I thought I saw him coming out of a MacDonald’s last week.
Bob: Well… uh… he’s a young man. Maybe he was just, you know, sowing some wild oats.
Mal: I was following you, Fred! I snuck in behind you because I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw you go in!
Alice: Wild oats I could deal with. But meat? I don’t think he was going in for the fries. I think the fertilizer is OK because it helps the plants grow even if it is chemicals. Beef is totally different! What if he actually eats dead animals! He promised me he was vegan!
Bob: A little meat never hurt anyone… much.
Alice: Except the poor animal! If he’s a meat-eater I’m going to have to break it off with him, and the wedding is tomorrow!
Mal: Wait, what? No!
Bob: Oh don’t do that! So he gave into temptation one time. MacDonald’s is like a bachelor party for the taste buds. One last fling, you know?
Alice: Uncle Fred?
Alice: How do you know what MacDonald’s is like?
Bob: I, uh… well, I figured if everyone is so keen to eat it there must be something good about it!
Alice: I’m not keen to eat it. Andy isn’t either. At least he says.
Bob: Well maybe you should believe him.
Alice: But what was he doing there? Did you… take him there? Like dragging the groom to a strip club for his bachelor party?
Bob: Ha! You caught me. But he wasn’t having any! Really. He almost threw up at the smell of the meat cooking, the sight of those big juicy beef patties sizzling away…
Alice: It sounds like you enjoyed it!
Bob: Well, maybe I did, a little. A man can dream.
Mal: Dream? You sucked down two burgers and then ordered another!
Alice: I dream sometimes too, Uncle Fred.
Bob: Really? About burgers?
Alice: Is that wrong?
Bob: I guess… not really?
Mal: What are you saying, Freida! I love you!
Alice: Could you take me to MacDonalds? Just once?
Bob: Uh… sure.
Alice: Then let’s go, before I change my mind!
Mal (entering the scene, ignorant of everything that has just happened): Hey Frieda! There’s a new tofu smoothie place just opened up down the street! Let me buy you one!
Alice (her face falls, then she pastes on a fake smile): But Uncle Fred and I were just… well… OK! Thanks, Uncle Fred, but I’ll take a rain check. A tofu smoothie sounds just great!
Not the world’s most brilliant scene, but hopefully it catches the sense of the idea. Mal can introduce ideas into the scene and the players can embellish them, but it only works if everyone is listening carefully. And of course in this imaginary scene Alice and Bob continued to mime gardening throughout.
Maybe the game will work in practice, maybe it won’t. Try it out and see!