Here is one of my favorite exercises and the topic is “building upon”. I call this “anding” – referring the the second half of Yes-And. This is a real workout on “making next steps in a story”. The vehicle I use is actually a game, sometimes used for performance, be it that the instructions to the players are different for workshopping, compared to performance of the game in e.g. a short form format.
Rather than describing the idea behind this use of the game, I will describe actual workshop situations. The examples given here are real-world and were taken from my workshop notes, be it that they were collected from various workshops with various participants and combined into one “fake” workshop report.
I introduce the workshops as follows: you all know the principle of yes-and (everyone nods) – so in this workshop we are going to work on the “and” part. It will be like training our and-muscle. When an athlete trains her muscles, it probably hurts a bit. It shouldn’t hurt to the point of damage. But in training athletes push their boundaries. If you only train by doing what you are already comfortable doing you probably won’t make a lot of progress. Similarly, the training of our and-muscle will “hurt” a bit. You will probably find this “hard” or “uncomfortable”. That’s why it’s called “Extreme” anding. You may find what we are going to do very “heady” – in the sense of having to think too hard rather than just play. Don’t worry about that at the start; you’ll get the hang of what we’re trying to do.
I tell the group we will be using a game handle they are probably familiar with, but we will change the premise a bit. The handle is Slide Show and I go over the structure again, so everyone is on the same page:
- We get one suggestion, of a foreign country or destination (it might be a city, a landmark instead of a country).
- One player will be the presenter: she has taken a trip to our foreign country and had a helluva adventure there, which she will present as a (make believe) Powerpoint slide show with images.
- Presenter describes part of the story and then mimes a mouse click.
- The “mouse click” is the cue for the rest of the players, who then “build” the slide image, illustrating the story. I instruct players they can mill about or move when “building” the slide, they are allowed to make noises – but no talking – and the final result should be static, i.e. everybody freezes to present a still slide.
- Once the slide has been established and is “stable”, the presenter continues the story, using a “mouse click” to indicate when she wants the next slide. And so forth.
We do no less than 3 slides – perhaps more.
- We want the presenter to perform this like an actual presentation, with an opening and a conclusion.
- The idea is that the whole of the story is built upon the interaction between presenter and actors making the slides.
I ask the group to do 2 or 3 of these, and I won’t comment (but I’ll take notes). Here’s 2 more or less typical rounds they might perform.
- Presenter: So I took my wife on a trip to Egypt; we had had a really crummy hotel. My wife took a shower the first morning and she got sucked into the drain hole.
- Group presents a chaotic picture, one female is on the ground with her hands in the air and there are several other players around her, clearly “upset”.
- Presenter: Then we went to see the pyramids, and we had a really scary taxi driver.
- Group presents an image of 4 people in a car, the “driver” putting on a nasty face and the others panicking. The actor who was on the floor in the first slide is in the “back seat”; the person sitting next to her was also in the “shower” with her in the first slide.
- Presenter: Next to the pyramids they were selling souvenirs, and we purchased a carpet.
- Group shows a picture of the 2 actors who were in the taxi back seat, seemingly carrying a rolled up carpet; some other characters seem to make fun of them.
- Presenter: And you are now actually sitting on the carpet we bought in Egypt.
We give everyone a round of applause and I ask the group to do another round.
- Presenter: so there was this baby on the plane that kept us awake all night.
- Group presents a bunch of characters with hands over their ears, and another (the baby ?) lying on her back, crying.
- Presenter: We went shopping in a local market.
- Group presents total chaos, one person is lying on her back with his legs up in the air.
- Presenter: Yeah the locals fit trousers lying down there. So then we went for a meal, local style. And they fed us baby food.
- Group presents a bunch of people clearly eating.
- Presenter: so we had a great trip, thank you.
We give everyone an applause. The group eyeballs me in a kind of befuddled way, and I explain: “This is perhaps more or less the way you might play this game in performance. If you manage to amuse your audience, that’s fine by me. But in this workshop we are going to try and play it in a different way. As far as I am concerned you need not try and do what we are going to do next in your performances. Consider what comes next as an exercise, and just that.
Now without wanting to pass judgement on how you play this game for performance, let’s analyse how you perform it. I’ll be critical, but don’t take that personal: I did not ask you to play the game “my way” – so there was no way you could know what I’d like to see in this game. So you’re not at fault for the analysis, but the analysis is you are not building upon what you get from each other. Let’s take some examples.
In the scene in Egypt, the presenter starts off with a pretty absurd premise: your wife is getting sucked into the shower drain. You are trained improvisers, so you accept the offer. But what did the first slides show us?
The group mumbles that we saw the wife getting sucked into the shower; they argue they are accepting the offer by the presenter, and I admin that’s the fact. But what you showed in the slide is stuff we already knew: we were told the wife get sucked into the shower and that is what you showed us. In yes-and terms, you “yessed” the offer, but you did not add to it.
But then, what’s next? We move to a taxi with a weird driver. The second slide – again – only showed us what we already knew. Furthermore: you have thrown away the original offer: the missus getting sucked into the shower. That is a very weird thing to happen in a hotel room; the fact that your next step in the story basically “forgets about all that” is not “and” – an in my book it is hardly “yes” either.
Ditto for the trip to Guatemala: you have “accepted-in-a-half-assed-way” the crying baby on the plane; only to throw it away afterwards. The group argues “but the baby came back”. I counter that “the idea of a baby” indeed returned by means of the baby food, and by then you had already thrown away the next idea: the fact that the locals only fit trousers lying on their backs.
Again, don’t worry about this criticism – I didn’t give you any specific instructions. But here are instructions for the remainder of this workshop:
- We are going to play the game again, and we are going to try and add stuff to each step of the game.
- I do not want the slide folks to shows us what we already know, and I do not want the presenter to describe what is in the previous slide.
- I want you both to take what you have been offered, and then add to that, perhaps offer the “consequence” – show or tell us what happens next.
- And finally, I expect you to use everything that you’ve been offered, instead of throwing it away.
I will be interrupting a lot, and we will discuss as a group what we are seeing, and what possible options are. I ask for 1 volunteer/presenter and 5 people to do the slides.
The suggestion is “Paris” and Mark will present.
- Mark: So my girlfriend & me we’d been together for one year and to celebrate we went to Paris and we climbed up the Eiffel tower.
- The group lumps together, someone is pointing in the distance and someone is looking through binoculars.
I interrupt and address the other students: “Who is who here? What do we see?” Answer: a bunch of folks, probably on the Eiffel tower. My reaction is that we already know the presenter and his girlfriend are on the Eiffel Tower – the slide does not add anything to that. Furthermore, who is who here? Both Andy & Joe raise their hand and both claim to be the presenter character.
I give feedback: the reason why this is happening is that you are all jumping in together. It may be wiser to really look and listen to what others present, make sure you understand it, and only jump in to add to stuff that is clear. So let’s forget this slide and make a new one, based on the same offer: Presenter takes his girlfriend to the Eiffel Tower during an anniversary trip.
The group tries again, but takes thinks more slowly. Andy takes Joanne onto the stage and wraps an arm around her wrist; he stares thru binoculars and she decides to do the same. I interrupt.
So, who is who? Everyone agrees they know Andy is playing the presenter character, and Joanne is his girlfriend. So far so good. But I still object that we already knew that. The group wants to know what I expect from them, and just say: accept what is there and add something to it. Joe decides to be a bird flying around the Eiffel Tower. I interrupt and ask the group what they think. They object that the slides still does not show us what happens next. I agree, but … at least something has been added, and I think they should be able to work with that. We hand over to the presenter.
- Mark: there was a nasty bird flying around our heads, it scared my girlfriend so I killed it.
- Group shows Andy with a gun in his hand, and Joe lying on his back, dead. I interrupt.
I have 2 problems here. Can anyone guess? The group immediately understands that slide 2 did not really add to what the presenter offered. I add to that: the presenter used what was added in the first slide (the bird), added to that (bird is scary) but then threw away what he just created. We had some tension (angry bird) and boom, bird dead and tension gone. So let’s try again.
Mark gives in, saying he has no idea how to proceed, so I ask the rest of the group for anyone with an idea to come forward be take over as a presenter. Ellen steps forward and offers (playing the boyfriend character):
- It was a huge bird, and it grabbed my wife and flew away with her.
I interrupt: What do we think? The group agrees it’s a good move, but someone wants to know whether I have a problem with the absurd premise. THB I don’t – on the condition that we build further upon it. To cut a long story short, they come up with the next steps:
- Group shows the girlfriend in the bird’s nest, surrounded by baby birds.
- Presenter tell us he next climbs up the Notre Dame Cathedral, to the bird’s next, in order to save his girlfriend.
- Next image is the girlfriend hugging the big bird, and the baby birds hugging both of them. The boyfriend is also in the nest but girlfriend – while hugging the bird – makes a pushing-away gesture towards her boyfriend.
- Presenter wraps up: “So I made myself a Tinder profile”.
Here is another one. The suggestion was Chechnya and Ellen presents:
- Ellen: it was Mirko’s first murder.
Mark objects that this has little to do with a trip to Chechnya, but I counter that the game handle setup need not be used dogmatically. Ellen chimes in with the fact that “Chechnya” made her think of violence, and that the name ‘Mirko” sounded exotic enough to her to be Chechnyan (sincerest apologies to the massive amount of Chechnyan readers of this blog). Anyway, we love the opening. On to the first image.
- We see Joe shooting Joane.
The group immediately reacts that we know there is going to be a murder; we need to see more. Group shows a guy shoveling and woman upset/angry.
I let them brainstorm:
- First idea, she’s the victim’s wife. But why would she be there when the killer is burying the body?
- She’s the killer’s lover. Why is she crying then?
- (Actually they could have worked with either of the above; perhaps wife/does not appreciate Mirko’s career choice? – but the group didn’t get to that.)
- Alternative, it’s the burial with an undertaker. But that does not add anything: we know a dead body will be buried and it’s pretty likely someone will cry.
- Ellen offers: Mirko’s gran is very upset he’s ruining her meticulously manicured lawn.
We all love this. Given that Mirko is an inexperienced killer if might make sense he would do something stupid like burying the evidence in his family’s backyard.
Here’s how they proceeded:
- Next image is again Mirko shoveling, and and angry man next to him.
- Ellen: Mirko’s granddad was not too happy he was destroying his beloved vegetable patch.
Great! They have found a game! Here’s how they wrapped it up:
- Several images/explanations of Mirko upsetting town folks by burying the evidence; heightening and raising the stakes (he ends up burying someone in the prime minister’s bedroom).
- Final image is Mirko himself in a coffin.
Suggestion is Rome and Joe is presenting, opening with a very vague offer (which is fine by me as long as what follows becomes interesting):
- Joe: So we went to visit St Peter’s Square.
- First image is 2 Swiss guards, and some characters in front of them.
Swiss Guards are obviously expected at the Vatican, so the group feels this is too weak. They try again:
- 2 Swiss Guards, someone standing there with his arms open, and someone else prying.
- Presenter offers there is a bishop on the square; but they are catching on the the challenge and Ellen offers:
- “In the middle of the square was Jesus, resurrected”.
In terms of raising the stakes that’s a great move. Here’s how the group wraps it up:
- The Swiss Guard characters arrest the Jesus character and drag him away.
- Ellen: The man was declared mentally ill and committed to for life, to an asylum.
- They might have stopped there, but Mark adds another offer: he comes to the front of the stage, with a physically big pose (arms stretched wide open), crying. Andy and Joane flank him, miming wings.
- Ellen wraps up: “God cried”.
So there you have it: one of my favorite workshops to teach. It can be frustrating until the participants catch on, but it’s a great workout of you “anding-muscles”. Give it a try and let me know how it went. Or if you want me to come and run it for you, just get in touch!