And GO!

5 reasons theater games are valuable to an actor’s training.

I had a friend in college, a fellow theater major, who was a strong actor but a weak memorizer. I don’t say that to be rude — he is a good person and a friend. He was entirely aware of his Achilles heal and would typically ask fellow cast members and scene partners for their patience and flexibility if he needed additional time to practice outside of rehearsal. He was honest with himself about his limitations and apologetic whenever he caused someone to have to “carry the ball.” He was so open and vulnerable about it that most people could hardly hold it against him. It was better than the alternative — him pretending that he didn’t have a problem and blaming everyone else when things fall apart.

Mid way though our college career, he founded the college’s first improvisational comedy troupe. He held auditions once or twice/year, organized regular rehearsals and booked gigs that helped to sustain the group financially. I was happy for my friend and proud of his accomplishment but, when asked, he would humbly testify that he finally found a way to perform that enabled him to bypass any memorization requirements.

The troupe performed a lot around campus and eventually attracted a following that included more than just theater kids who are required to make appearances at the theater department productions. Everyone likes to laugh — not just theater kids — and since no one was being graded on their attendance, it was a nice feather in my friend’s cap to know that those who attended his standing room only shows were there voluntarily, for their own enjoyment, and not because they were required to show their face.

Lots of drama classes incorporate theater games into their curriculum. Personally, I prefer to work with a script in my theater classes. It doesn’t matter if I am the teacher or the student. I want to have a relationship with great plays and I want my students to spend some time getting to know or, at the very least, acknowledging great playwrights. So when I entered college and encountered these improvisational theater games for the first time, I was resistant. How were these glorified camp games going to help me become a better actress or get me a job on Broadway? Short answer, they won’t.

Acting skills and acting technique is much more than just a pedagogy of games that, when practiced formulaically will yield great actors, and skills in improvisational games will not guarantee you a job anywhere (except maybe in an improvisational comedy troop like the one my friend founded). However, there is some relevancy to theater games that I would like to point out. In moderate doses, I believe that they can be a healthy supplement to a theater diet that consists mainly scene work, audition preparation, play analysis and research.

Fun

Let’s start with the obvious. For those of us who aren’t petrified about having to think and react creatively on the spot, these games are fun for participants both on stage and in the audience. For performers who ARE petrified about on the spot creativity, well, improv games may not be your idea of fun, but clearly you have identified a weakness in your performing that needs work. Which brings me to my next point.

Fearlessness

When things go wrong in theater, and things do go wrong in the theater, you need to have the courage and skills to assess the damage and make appropriate choices for your character and the story. If you are someone who is so entirely dependent upon your script and your dutiful memorization of lines that the occasional theatrical train wreck robs you of your ability to problem solve adequately, then you need to be spending some time with improvisational theater games. As a theater actor, you are working in real time. That means, no matter what happens on stage, you MUST keep going. You have a duty to the story you are telling. In film, you have more flexibility to try again when things go wrong or simply don’t feel right. But live audiences aren’t interested in affording you that luxury. And rightfully so.

Group cohesion/ensemble building

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to speak with cast members and other artists who are currently working on Broadway in productions of “War Horse” and “Peter and the Starcatcher.” The artists who work on these successful productions spoke with great conviction and in great detail about how important the ensemble is to the success of their production. They described exercises and games that cast members did together, the pre-show warm ups and rituals and (in the case of “Peter and the Starcatcher”) the deviations from the script that were allowed in development that helped to establish character choices in the finished product. Unless you are on stage alone every night, and I dare say that this will rarely if not ever be the case, theater games can be a playful AND effective way to arouse a group of actors, get them “in the same room” and thinking like a team.

Concentration

If you’ve been working with a particular script or character for a while, eventually, even the best of us have to refresh our perspective on what has become ingrained and familiar. It’s not necessarily a bad thing when your character gets under your skin, but bare in mind that every audience needs to believe that they are watching your character interact with others in a set of circumstances that is unfolding for them for the first time, every time they witness your performance. Improvisational theater games have the potential to recharge your batteries when you’ve become inadvertently bored with, uninspired by, uninterested in your material and you need a creative boost.

Imagination

As artists, what are we without this? I am an adult and a highly imaginative person, but I’m also a teacher, a business owner and a mom. From where I sit, I feel I can say with some authority that kids are the majority shareholders in the imagination market. It’s hardly rocket science. Adults have much more responsibility and much more weighing on them. My imagination tries to take me places everyday, but I often neglect her in favor of my chores and duties. The problem is that I tend to overemphasize my duties and find myself avoiding the very thing that makes me feel alive. Imagination is critical for creative people and, like most creative attributes, takes time, patience and commitment to nurture. Theatre games, in all their childish, camp-like glory enables us to engage with the child at play within us. The child we left behind.

If you’re the kind of person who reads a lot of books about acting and performing, you will encounter a lot of different opinions on the importance of the ensemble vs. individual responsibility in theater and mixed advice on the value of acting games to the overall success of a performance (ensemble or otherwise). Like anything else, I encourage you to try things first before you rule anything out. Who is leading the exercise and the relative openness of the participants WILL influence the results so don’t just give it one shot. It took a few tries before I got to a point when I had to concede that, OK, yeah, I get it. This helps and it was even kind of a little bit fun.

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