I start every improv session that I run with word association. I love it.
Some players are reminded of the therapist’s couch, this free verbal association reminiscent of psychoanalysis, and are afraid of what it might reveal.
This fear will cause you to censor your thoughts.
The need to be clever will freeze them up as you scramble for something good, even though you can say ANYTHING AT ALL.
why? (possible ending)
Word association is the essence of verbal improvisation. It is the foundation and the building-blocks; and it is a lot of the glue–most of the glue, in fact.
And it’s very low impact: i.e. it’s not a scene with spacework props and characters and narrative; lay people or civilians can free associate. It has only as much emotion and nuance and flavor as you want to give it. You can song and dance with jazz hands or just grunt quietly slouched.
There are no wrong responses in word association. Something resonates with the whole group every now and then. Everyone laughs or a few people laugh or groan, often because they were thinking the same thing.
It’s best to say what’s in your mind–the first thing that comes to mind–especially when it’s in everyone else’s mind. Give your audience/fellow players what they want to hear. “Be obvious,” as Keith Johnstone says, “and the audience will think you’re genius.” Waiting for the clever response, rather than the obvious one, short changes everyone not only by slowing the game down, but by depriving everyone of the “aha” moment when we are all thinking of the same thing.
Here’s the way I run word association:
Everyone is in a circle (and eye contact is highly encouraged)
The person with the focus ball* (a juggle ball so it doesn’t roll when dropped) starts by saying anything at all, and throws the focus ball to another player in the circle
who catches the ball and responds with the first thing that comes to mind, then throws the ball to another player
Here are the instructions I give:
You can repeat the word given to you,
You can say gibberish, grunt, or groan
You can say a whole phrase
Please respond to the last thing said
*sometimes we use the whole body, using energy and emotion, movement and sound to throw focus instead of using a ball
notice I said
respond to the last thing said. Honor the person before you by responding to what was just said, not what was said two words ago, because you have a clever response for that. Your response should be the first thing–not the second thing, not the third thing that comes to mind when you hear the response of the person before you. The more immediate and honest one’s connection to one’s response, however idiomatic (inside jokey, only means something to you) it might be, the better. Even better still if we were all thinking the same thing.
It’s ok to say “what?” if you didn’t hear it and it’s also ok to say a phrase like “I don’t know” when you respond to a word you don’t recognize.
I strongly encourage people to respond to whatever they think was said, whether it was ‘misheard’ (like “salsa”/”seltzer”) or a word unknown to you or something in a foreign language. What does that word (or sound–if it doesn’t sound like a word) remind you of?
If I notice players that have a habit of saying “um” before everything, I will bring out the “um” ball.
“This purple ball is the ‘um’ ball,” I say. “You must say ‘um’ before anything else with the purple ball. The gray ball is regular, no ‘um.'”
Then we pass both balls around simultaneously, now extra aware of when we say, “um,” which is good.
Two balls at the same time is good for a couple of reasons–it really limits your ability to plan your response and it usually provides an opportunity to talk about making sure your partner is ready to receive your communication; throwing to someone before that person sees you usually means a dropped ball.
In an actual improv scene, performing some action where your partner can’t see you will undermine the reality you are establishing together.
After we’ve done that for a bit, tossing the ball randomly, I like to go in order of the circle for several rounds and then back out of the associations.
By that I mean we start with the last response and go backward through each association saying, “I said Y because you said X,” until we reach the beginning of the rounds again.
It’s ok–in fact encouraged–for the entire group to work together to reconstruct the path when someone is stumped. Usually it doesn’t have to be encouraged and the group will help spontaneously.
If we have to–as a last resort when the group cannot complete the path backward–we start over with the first person and word and try to reconstruct the original path to the point we got stumped. It never fails. Maybe once it failed.
The more glib or silly (vs personal and connected) your associations, the harder it is to backtrack. It’s just a fact, not a judgment.
Occasionally a word-at-a-time narrative will develop spontaneously. If we’ve done enough free association I will move on to various word-at-a-time exercises when this happens. If it happens early in the free association, I let the narrative run its course back, as it inevitably does, into free association again, saving it for later.
I have on occasion played “pass the clap” in big groups around the circle while the word association focus ball went around randomly. More activity means less planning, which is the goal.