Monday, November 16, 2009

OCS Methods: Core Warm-ups

OCS Methods Table of Contents:
Core Warm-ups <-- You Are Here
Play Obviously
Dear Diary
Hand Signals
Popcorn Scenes
Story Map
Character Scenes
Practice Craft

OCS Core Warm-ups
We do these core warm-ups every OCS session. We usually spend 15-30 minutes here, but groups new to focused improv may need to spend longer at first. We do these in this order every time, because each step prepares players for the next.

Count to Twenty

In Count to Twenty, we warm up our focus, quiet our distractions, and center on being able to hear with our hearts and respect each other.

The host begins by saying "One". Then, the group is silent, attentively listening. When it feels right, someone else says "Two". If multiple voices speak up to say "Two", and so sound together, then the game is reset and someone says "One", again. The goal is to count to twenty without interrupting.

Sometimes, we try to "game the system" by counting swiftly on our own or trying to fall into a simple pattern (like counting around the circle). Even as veterans, we sometimes try to fall back on more subtle "systems", to avoid the intense authentic and intuitive focus that Count to Twenty calls for. In these cases, we gently remind ourselves of the purpose of this exercise and begin again.

Sometimes, anxiety gets the better of us. If we've had a really hard week, or are new to OCS, we might find ourselves rushing, repeatedly speaking at the same time as others, and laughing nervously or freezing up. Sometimes, we'll notice this happening to others, and that can bring up our own pain and fears. If this happens, slow it down, breathe, and listen. Working through that anxiety and distraction is the point of this exercise. Those who learn how to Count to Twenty know how to quiet their hearts, listen, and play softly. Occasionally we may spend twenty minutes on this exercise alone (though five minutes is more typical), and that's okay, as long as we arrive at a place of gentle focus. If we can't center enough to Count to Twenty, it's probably a sign that we are unable to center enough to storyjam together.

As more experienced jammers, we sometimes try variations by increasing the number goal to 25 or 30, by playing with our eyes closed, or by trying to predict who is going to speak next (I like to look around the group and imagine lights over each player's head, including my own. The brighter the light, the more my intuition is telling me that it is for that person to speak next). We also try synchronized counting to ten or so (everyone says each number together), with no rhythm or leader.

When we first assemble, it's normal for us to come from a place of stress, avoidance, frantic speech, nervous laughter. This simple game gives us permission to begin being open to each other, to put our defense mechanisms away.

Word Popcorn

In Word Popcorn, we shake up our basic creativity, learn to play obviously, and let ourselves be unashamed.

The host begins by saying any word. The player to the host's right listens attentively to the word, and then speaks their own word that most immediately comes to mind. The player to the right of that player listens, speaks a new word, and so forth around the circle continuously.

We often feel exposed when first trying this exercise, though warming up enough with Counting to Twenty helps. If we're feeling guarded or are beginners, a natural response is to protect ourselves by "over-thinking" our contributions, to use our brains instead of our hearts, to come off as clever, to depreciate our own or others' contributions. When we succeed at the purpose of word popcorn, we enter a space where we are focused on quickly, naturally, and intuitively responding to the words of the person before us, without shame, judgment, planning, or thought.

Humor often becomes endemic to Word Popcorn, and that's fine with us as long as it emerges naturally out of performing the exercise authentically. We practice the idea that trying to be funny is usually not the best way to be funny. We usually play Word Popcorn for about ten minutes, but sometimes it feels good and right to play for as long as twenty or more minutes.

Word at a Time Story

Often, we organically transition out of Word Popcorn when the free association spontaneously becomes prose. One of us will say "Clouds", and instead of responding with "Dragons" or "Rain", the next person authentically responds with the word "covered". From there, if we're listening carefully, we'll realize that "Clouds covered..." is the beginning of a sentence, which is the beginning of a story. The next player might say "the", and the next "western", and the next "slopes", and so on. Other than the shift to continuous story, this game plays identically to Word Popcorn.

Partly because of the influence of comedy improv, we sometimes have a tendency to approach games like Word at a Time Story with an initial intention to create wacky non-sequitur humor. When we're warming up for Open Circle Story, this is the opposite of our intention. Instead of trying to say the unexpected and throwing the next player off balance, we try to key into the group narrative and to say the most intuitively obvious thing.

We succeed at Word at a Time Story when we're attentive and in the moment, and yet also hold in mind a clear vision of the scene so we can better reincorporate the larger arc of the plot as it forms. When we're successful, we create logical, simple stories that make sense, regardless of whether they are funny or interesting.

Sometimes we use variations on Word at a Time Story, like Oracle, wherein one player asks a question and the other players answer it 1 word at a time. Other variations include Word at a Time haikus and Line at a Time songs or poems.

We usually take ten minutes or so to tell two or three Word at a Time Stories, but if we're struggling to put together a simple, cohesive story in this exercise, it's a sign that we need to prepare more before we move past warm-ups. We take the time we need.

Sometimes, we notice that some or all of us are repeatedly getting lost and confused by the story. In this case, we remind the group to Play Obviously (to Keep it Simple and Stupid), and we keep working at Word at a Time Story.

Sometimes, we notice that some or all of us are blocked and are having to force contributions. In this case, we fall back to Word Popcorn until everyone is opened up.

Sometimes, we notice that some or all of us are making jokes, anxiously laughing, and that we're having trouble focusing. In this case, we fall back to Count to Twenty until we're ready to center. We might even decide to play a more simple game, like a board game or cards, if even centering seems unattainable. Often times more relaxed activities will allow us to let go of anything that may be troubling our mind, thereby freeing our thoughts and letting us focus more on the circle.

When we have many beginners with us, we may spend much of our session "warming up". Even when we're veterans, we still have much to do to master the essential storytelling skills of listening and jamming softly, and working on those skills is an excellent use of our time. We know that it's better to take the time we need than to push forward and find ourselves frustrated by the crew's inability to engage fluently with the challenges of the more complex stages of OCS. If we push forward and leave even one person behind, we're asking for interpersonal conflict, and ultimately for them to drop out of our crew.

Thanks to Willem Larsen for being the first to formulate much of the original discussion on the pedagogy of play.

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