I lead at a listening/seeing workshop at our Rag Factory class this week, where I tried to put all my favourite listening games and seeing exercises into one workshop.
I think listening and seeing are one of the most important and core skills of improvisation. If you aren’t listening or seeing the other improvisers you aren’t improvising with them, as you’re missing everything they are doing. It's a first requirement.
Without listening and seeing we end up with improvisers inhabiting different worlds, and the bottom falls out of the scene/game.
Also listening is one of the hardest skills to miss in yourself, because you often don’t realise you’ve missed stuff, because you’ve missed it and never even knew it was there in the first place. Most improvisers think they are great listeners, and only when they do some exercises do they see how much they are missing.
So here are my favourite listening and seeing exercises from tonight, in no particular order:
Group of actors together (4-12 or so)
They all talk together in one voice at the same time.
No one actor leads. If that starts to happen get them to lead only a syllabule and not the whole word.
Get everyone to look at each other constantly.
Can play with two groups meeting, or set a party with multiple groups chatting.
Also teaches people to be obvious, as that's when the group mind kicks in for this game.
One of Dylan Emery’s favourite games, who I originally learnt it from, thanks Dylan.
At first the group copies the leader who talks very obviously, and they all talk loud saying what he’s saying at the same time and in the same way. Gradually they lower the volume until they are just saying it in their heads. So I can now point to different people and they pick up on the story/sentence, even if it's mid word. It's very easy to spot when you aren't listening in this game, as it grinds to a halt.
Try and help people pick up mid word and carry on immediately, rather than jumping to different subjects or recapping the last 4 words.
We then got the group to tell stories like this, with me pointing to the person who was to speak out loud, while the others voice mirrored inside their head. This is similar to the game Storyteller Die. Quite often popular impro games get dismissed, but I think if you get to the core of why they are there in the first place you can find they are still gems. Storyteller Die is a great listening game, and also a great game for removing the inner judge.
Simple game, but so fascinating to play.
Pretend their is a mirror between you.
One of you leads, the other becomes the mirror image. The whole group can play this in pairs all at once.
Swap roles, so other leads and other follows.
Remind them that they aren't just heads and hands, people have legs and feet and loads of other things too, so awaken the whole body.
Change it so that neither are leading, they are both mirror images of each other and just increase what is already there. So if one person raises a hand the other is doing at the same time and then continues this movement.
Change into impulse and response. One person makes another move. The other makes a response. If they get caught in their head just return to mirroring.
People come in one by one playing individual parts of sound and movement in a machine that represents something physical, an emotion, or a concept. Keith Johnstone mentions it in is book but says it's not worth doing. I actually think it is one of the best group physical exercises going, as it teachers actors to build a complete stage picture quickly. Also great for listening and seeing as there are so many parts to be aware of.
Repeat Last Line
Two actors play a scene. Each actor must repeat the last line the other actor said word by word perfect before adding something new. They can change grammar and emotion etc to make it make sense for them. A great listening game, and one where you can spot if people aren't listening as they miss words. Pick them up on every single word missed, otherwise it's no point in playing the game. For instance:
A: Hello Mr. Hilgarberry.
B. Hello. Mr. Hilgarberry, that's me, welcome to the laboratory.
A: That's you. Welcome to the laboratory indeed, I've heard a lot about you.
B. Indeed! I've heard a lot about you too! Professor McMacelberry, the fastest atom smasher this side of Switzerland.
A: Too. Professor McMacelberry, the fastest atom smasher this side of Switzerland. They don't call me Fusion Man for nothing!
So overall, if you can't see or hear what the other improvisers are doing, you can't really improvise with them. Mick Napier suggests that concentrating too much on listening alone can be a bad thing though, as it makes people passive and not actually adding anything, which I also agree with. So as always in impro, I think it's a matter of balance, and definitely a skill worth practicing.