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Monday, October 01, 2007

Storytelling Games: Never too old to Play

Adults seem to shy away from playing storytelling games to improve their skills as storytellers. Yet, a youth storytelling club would suffer if games were not played. (Some games listed at the end.)

During my days at Brigham Young University, our storytelling club meetings almost always included some sort of game. Games are not reserved for the young.

How Games Help Adults/Kids:
1. Spark imaginations
2. Strengthen improvisation skills
3. Gain insight for in-process stories
4. Build leadership and speaking skills
5. Create a chance to laugh

Spark imaginations
How each person interprets the game will be different. With two or more people playing the games, you may experience reactions not guessed on your own.

For example, you may play the game “Carry On” and a person passes an imaginary lizard to you. Your choice could be to pretend to pet it while another person may pretend to eat it. This could trigger thoughts like “what if someone ate a lizard?” or “who would enjoy eating a lizard?” or “what could convince someone to eat a lizard that they would otherwise not ingest?” The questions could be endless. Any ideas triggered by playing a game would be important to store in some way whether by writing it down, recording the idea on a mp3, etc.

Strengthen improvisation skills
Most storytelling games require some sort of improvisation such as adding the next line of the story, acting out images or emotions that other people may throw into the story, reacting to another person’s actions and so on.

When I was in high school, I competed in storytelling through Forensics (public-speaking contests). There was a certain story that I told almost every week. Then, without warning, my mind went blank. I was not about to let the judge know that the plot and ending had escaped me. To this day, I do not remember how I saved the story. Yet, I finished the story with a different ending and received high marks from the judge. Warming up with storytelling games before the performance built my impromptu skills.

National storyteller Ed Stivender is one of the cleverest ones to use spontaneity to his benefit. First, he asks the audience for a well-known fairy tale like Cinderella or Snow White. Then, he asks for a different setting, a bad habit that a main character has, objects, and anything else that makes the story sound crazy. Finally, on the spot, he creates the story. Audience members are able to walk away from the performance knowing that they co-created a humorous masterpiece.

As for national storyteller Olga Loya, she starts a story, pauses, and calls on someone to shout out anything that comes to their mind for the next adventure in the plot. She continues for a moment and then encourages another audience member to add an object or thought. Somehow she is always able to wrap up the story—no matter how silly it is—and bring out a heartwarming lesson.

Storytelling games can be part of the performance itself with amazing results.

Gain insight for in-process stories
Sometimes you get stuck on a story. Maybe you have an idea for the beginning. Maybe you have an idea for a character. Whatever the case, you are stuck and it seems like the story will never come to full fruition.

If this is so, then call up some people to play some storytelling games. Connecting with the local storytelling guild may be best. Otherwise, round up some of the neighborhood kids. You could choose a game that happens to involve the setting, the characters, or the plot of your in-process story. See how the others respond to the situation. You may have 27 different versions by the time you are done playing the game, but at least you have options.

As a writer can get writer’s block by staring at a blank page, so can a storyteller get storyteller’s block by working on a story with an empty mind.

Build leadership and speaking skills
Once you know some storytelling games, then next you need to explain the directions to the participants in clear and expressive ways.

There has been several times when I thought I was clear in explaining the rules of a game. Afterwards, I would see scrunched faces of confusion or sometimes hear the occasional “Huh?” or “What?” Another sign of miscommunication is when no one does anything after announcing, “Go” or “Begin.” Quickly, I have learned that demonstrating a part of the game improves the understanding of how to play for everyone.

Create a chance to laugh
Above all, play storytelling games for amusement. Technically, there are no “mistakes” that can be made during games—only fun, healthy moments.

I say “healthy” for good reason. You have heard, “laughter is the best medicine?” Whenever you think something is funny or when you laugh, there is certain saliva formed in your mouth. Inside this saliva are bacteria-fighting specimens. As you swallow this saliva, you are able to combat illness and reduce stress.

Laughter is also a good form of exercise. Ten minutes of rigorous laughter equals ten minutes of rowing. After playing 30 minutes or so of games, you may have reached a total of ten minutes of laughter so to qualify for your daily workout.

Some Games to Try:

Carry On
Form a circle, ideally with everyone standing up. One person decides on an imaginary object to pass to the person next to them. This “object” is passed from person to person in the circle. Some examples are a stinky sock, a fragile lamp, a bowling ball, and a lizard. When the “object” is passed back to the leader, then choose a different item.

***Variations: Try this same game with or without sounds. Have the leader rotate so several or all people have a chance to suggest something to pass around the circle.

A Big Yarn
Form a circle. Take a ball of yarn and have it wrapped around each person in the circle one time. Everyone will be connected in this way. The person with the end of the yarn becomes the leader and starts the story. While telling the story, the leader takes the yarn and rewraps the yarn until it is passed to the next person. Then the next person picks up the story from where the other one ended. Continue the story until the yarn is all rolled up.

***To help the leader, ask for suggestions of a setting and some characters from everyone. You may also determine certain code words that trigger a response from everyone in the circle. For example, if ever someone telling a story says “food”, all could respond with “mmmmmmmmm, food!” or whatever reaction tickles your fancy.

Set up four chairs with two chairs behind the other two. These chairs represent a car. All four chairs are filled with “passengers”. Determine who is the driver. Everyone in the car talks to each other to reflect a certain emotion already picked out. A fifth person is the hitchhiker. When the hitchhiker sticks out his thumb, the “driver” slams on the brakes (sound effects are encouraged). The driver is bumped out of the car, everybody rotates a chair, and the hitchhiker occupies the remaining open chair. The hitchhiker puts on a different attitude than the other passengers. As the hitchhiker continues the conversation, the other passengers reflect their speech of whatever emotion the hitchhiker is doing. Eventually, another hitchhiker comes along and sticks out his thumb. The rotation continues.

***Some emotions that may be fun to do: surprise, grumpiness, exuberance, sorrow, etc. This could also be a chance to improve vocabulary. An extra rule may be to add certain words that must be used during the conversation though said in such a way to flow with what the other passengers are saying. These words could change per rotation.

Form a circle, ideally with everyone standing up. Have two people in the center of the circle with each of them in a different position such as being down on one knee, having both arms in the air, hands on hips, etc. The audience suggests a setting. The two people unfreeze from their positions though, at the same time, gaining inspiration of their mood and emotions from each other. The two people act out a scene together until anyone from the audience shouts, “Freeze!” When called, the two people freeze in whatever positions they are in at the moment. Then the caller takes one of the two frozen positions, thus having one person return within the circle of the audience. A new setting is called out. Another scene is acted out and continues until someone else shouts, “Freeze!”

***Some people prefer to have a list of 20 or more ready-made positions. A person could choose a number that would relate to a position.

The Typewriter (or The Computer?)
Someone pretends to type on a typewriter. The typewriter starts the story. For each character or object the typewriter mentions, a person from the audience jumps out and plays the character or object. The characters/objects members listen to the writer’s story and act it out, but the writer must also listen to the characters/objects when they add their own dialogue.

***If you have people who are shy to jump in as a character/object, then have everyone but the writer line up. You could serve as the facilitator and silently point someone on the stage with the writer when you hear a character/object mentioned.

First and Last
Gather 20+ children’s books at the library. Write down the first sentence of each of the books on individual slips of paper. Each slip is placed in hat. Then write down the last sentence of each of the books on individual slips of paper and place in second hat. Have one person draw one “first sentence” and one “last sentence” from each of the hats. Give no more than 10 seconds for the person to tell the impromptu story. Watch them attempt to connect the first and last sentence in a comprehensive story. Be prepared for many laughs!

***You may choose for everyone to know what sentences the person drew or it could be kept a secret.

If you enjoyed this blog, you may also want to find more games in my entries "Ancient Civilizations: Story Standards from Then to Now" as well as "Imagination: 2 Ways to Zap Creativity into Kids".

May life be one grand game for you.

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman
Professional Storyteller
Co-Chair of Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance
(801) 870-5799


Tim said...

After studying and performing improv for more than twenty years, I'm of the opinion that Stivender, entertaining though he is, isn't creating a story on the spot with this game so much as he is playing a live version of "Mad Libs." It sounds like what Olga is doing is truly improvising. Hmm. I'm going to ask Olga to do that game next week when I see her.

Tim said...

In my experience leading these kind of games with adults, I find there are at least three reasons adults have a reluctance to try these games (more reluctance than children):

1. Their fear of being wrong. (Since our educational system has reinforced a belief in "the right answer" for their entire academic careers, being wrong = failure. (BTW, have you seen Sir Ken Robinson's talk on Creativity in Education? Fantastic!). The notion that an exercise can have a limitless amount of answers is difficult to grasp for some learners and scary to others.

2. Their fear of being exposed. Asking a person to come up with an idea on the spot is terrifying. Even if you coach the participants to use the first thing that comes to mind, often their inner editor is pre-judging the ideas. "Don't say that, people will think you are... " (And finishing the sentence could be: weird, immoral, insane, emotional, dangerous, or even dull)

3. Their deeply held notion that a game, especially a fun game, or one that makes you laugh, can't teach you anything.

When I teach games that involve imagination and improvisation, often I need to first give them permission to look silly, to make mistakes, to have fun, and to let go of attachment to any content (ideas are like tissues in a dispenser/box: they're disposable, and there's another one standing). Also, it is surprisingly helpful to give participants permission to be deadly boring. Sometimes, with very fearful participants, I have to first share the expected outcomes of each exercise... in effect, telling them the answer instead of letting them discover it themselves.

Professional Storyteller Rachel Hedman said...

Adults do need to give themselves more permission to release the fun and crazy energy they have inside of them.

Tim, I agree with the three reasons you stated as to why adults are reluctance to play games. I appreciate you listing them.

From your first comment, Ed Stivender is doing a live game of "Mad Libs" though I still saw that as a form of improv. Of course, as you pointed out, it is not as intense as to the spin that Olga Loya puts to it.

When is improv truly improv? Our minds are always creating images and thoughts so in some ways, we participate in improv all the time. Perhaps it is when we give voice to our creations when improv comes alive.

This could lead to another question--when is storytelling truly storytelling?

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman