Storyjamming: Warming Up and Working With Energy II

I struggle with throwing too much into my explanations of things. I enjoy wandering the places where all kinds of craziness overlaps, and so you may find this subject involves far more than just ‘improv warm ups’ – hence why I call it “working with energy” rather than just ‘warm up games’.

I believe you can’t move human energy where you want it by forcing it, explaining to it, or blocking it.”Moving” energy really means opening space for the energy to go. In some kind of odd way, human energy fills the container you put it in, like water. So, by changing the shape  and structure of the container, you can really shape the energy of relationships within your group.

Think about this! The implications! I have a five year old friend who just discovered exclamation points, so in his spirit I won’t hold back. To wit: you change relationships within a group, not by changing the people within the group, but by changing the shape of their container!! This means you no longer look for virtuous (or flawed) behavior, but you simply play games that change the shape of the container the group dwells in, according to your needs.

I find this ridiculously cool. If you’ve listened to my “Yes, and…!” podcast (and read the corresponding article), or my interview with Lisa Wells, you know how no matter how simple the intuition/improv game, it has an incredible amount to teach and a broad applicability.

So you can use these games and this understanding, as principles, to subtlely shape any container you find yourself in with another human being, when you find the space disintegrating into something that doesn’t support healthy interactions. Nonviolent Communication sessions, decision making processes, project retrospectives, all these ‘containers’ comprise themselves of many sub-games and understandings, that you can further support using improv/intuition games (whether fully, or just in principle).

Now, many, many people use improv/intuition games with insufficient understanding of how they work. I don’t claim any expertise myself, but I’ve had some very good mentors and seen how skilled folks work the games. An improv game doesn’t work like a magic bullet – you don’t just play “yes, and…!” a couple times and consider your problems solved. Don’t use them as one-size-fits-all icebreakers, and pick them out as random candy to distribute. These games require attention and intention.

Each improv game has a diagnostic function, and an energy moving function. Every time you play a game, you look for how the group handles it. If they seem unready or overwhelmed, then you know to back up into simpler and more fundamental games. I had this experience just the other day over skype, in my mythweavers storyband. I’d never done improv games “over the phone” before, and yet I knew we needed some way to further cohere as a group. So I gave it a shot, and discovered I had run the games exactly backwards (which tells me a LOT about our group, what we needed, and what we hadn’t gotten yet). I first ran a game called “color, advance”, where I had one person (A) tell a story, while another person (B) yelled ‘color!’ for more details periodically, and yet another person (C) yelled ‘advance’ for plot progression. They struggled with that, so I knew to back up (diagnostics! don’t blame the group, change the shape of the container!). So I backed up to “Word at a Time”, where in order each person added a single word to an ongoing story, as quickly as possible. They struggled with that too. So, I backed up yet again, played “Firing Line”, where two folks took turns calling out words to a third person, who immediately responded with the first word that came to mind. I noticed them handling that pretty well, so once they had a definite rhythm we next went back to “Word at a Time”, did great, then finally back to “Color, Advance”, doing great (you can find a handy card deck that contains all or most of these improv games Creative Advantage, or look in Viola Spolin’s book).

Huh, you know? Simple.

Except for of course the unbelievable limits that skype places on what I would normally do with a group (way more body movement and interaction, way more emphasis on eye contact), I feel like we can at least work up a decent enough container to consistently get better-than-average moments out of our skype storyjamming. In a way, playing over skype feels like blindfolding the group, which I might do for an improv game anyway; so maybe in the end it has a lot of potential!

The model I normally follow to warm up for storyjamming specifically, looks like this:

Follow the energy – all groups need something silly to start with, more tired or distracted groups need more silly games than usual. Silly doesn’t mean ‘easy’,  just silly (think ‘musical chairs’). Once energy has really begun to fly around the room, after a couple different silly games, use that energy to fuel more focused games. When their focus burns out, go back to silly and fun. Then back to focus, amping up the level of focus challenge each time we return. Look for mutual group eye contact as a sign the group has begun to feel ready for bigger challenges. End with a fiendishly difficult group mind diagnostic game, like ‘Counting’.

Even more concisely put:

A) Follow the Energy

B) Build energy with silly fun, use that energy to focus until burn out, then back to silly fun until ready for next level of focus challenge.

C) End with a group diagnostic game that demonstrates group unity.

Now about that ‘level of focus challenge’ – this part has a very open-ended nature. You can’t run out of ever-deeper levels of focus challenge. Think about the play you want your story games to create, and tune the warm-ups to get you there. If you want to go all the way to method acting and beyond, well, why the hell not. I think it’ll surprise you what you can achieve, and how quickly. However, don’t rush things either; really, only time limits you. The group will get as far as it can get in each session. The quicker you want to create group cohesion, the more time you must spend watching and opening space for the group energy to move into. Ironically, the more in a hurry you feel, the more time you must spend playing; you could warm up for a couple hours if you really wanted to get to magical places fast.

Which brings up the last point. Do you need to play these games, to create the storyjamming that satisfies you? Certainly some folks have very satisfying and consistent play without ever hearing of these improv games. I’ve had great story jams without them, but not consistently, and I think I know why; I play with new groups all the time, and only recently formed my core group. Folks with great consistently play tend to have tight, intimate core groups with long histories. I think these tools solve the problem of building brand-new groups to a high level of cohesion quickly, creating a space for satisfying play to happen fast and consistently. I also think these warm-up games find one’s blindspots, and iron them out, making each player personally improve over time.

So, as they say, Go Play!

Written by Willem