Peddling Candy to the Starving – Theatre Games

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Photo courtesy – Kate Ter Haar

Let’s warm up with Zip Zap Zop! Yeah! “The class loves it!” I hear teachers say. And it’s true they do love this variation of Hot Potato. It’s fast, competitive and silly. And then they play… usually with no observation, personal ensemble variation or internal challenge guided by the teacher or class.

To me, this is the equivalent of serving cotton candy instead of soup or salad to start off a meal. “The class loves it!” And it’s true they do because they are starving and the candy is sweet, easy to digest (it just melts in your mouth no chewing even required) but the crash will come… usually right in the middle of the main meal – or in our case rehearsal or class.

I went to a large conference a few weeks ago and in a high-level workshop we started with Zip Zap Zop. I took a breath and hope for a variation, a way of playing this game that actually meant something. You can play Tag and have it mean something, easy, it is a clear picture of intention, play, focus and high-stakes depending on the expectations. It can be done.

But alas, whoosh, I was sucked into a vacuum, a bubble of time, to play Zip Zap Zop with nothing inside it or after it. An isolated bubble, as if play and joy were not allowed inside the work of technique or the act of mixing technique into the play would ruin the play.

We are all hungry for play, so hungry you could feed us cotton candy and we would thank you. This was overwhelming apparent in this workshop of higher education students, teachers and artists. Thank you laughter was quick and joyous as it raised up to the height of the game and then popped and dispersed. A film of “oh that was fun but now what” lay on top of the workshop… and then the instructors moved on. Sigh.

Too much and too often and we’ll sugar crash, we’ll develop a distaste for play because somewhere in our body we learn that play is not substantial enough to sustain us and we isolate play for bubble of time – disconnected from work or productivity.

Please, arts educators, let’s talk. This is not an anti-“theatre games” address. This is a pro-play plea. Make theatre games substantial in their joyous play. Require commitment. Expect observations of process. Raise the stakes. Pull the play thread through to the rest of the work, it is the spine of the work!

Let’s start talking:

2 Responses to “Peddling Candy to the Starving – Theatre Games

  • Good thoughts.

    Any exercise in isolation can kill play. Can’t Zip-Zap, if played by a connected ensemble have merit and be a good initial focusing/energizing warm-up?

    I have seen it work.

    Just as.

    An “As One” exercise played by a disconnected group of students not willing to release can fall flat on its face and kill the sense of play in the room.

    As with any collaborative effort, the amount of buy-in has to be proportional to the abstractness of the exercise.

    Zip Zap Zop, Viewpoints exercises, Viola Spolin Improv games all ask the players to release and play the game. Explore the exercise.

    Can it be that the connection must be made clear to the ensemble? The clarification is needed?

    Or is it that a scaffolding of exercises wasn’t planned enough to flow from Zip-Zap-Zop to another exercise which also has focus, energy, and connection as its goal?

    As you said with tag, zip-zap-zop can be played with the same amount of intention, play, focus and high-stakes if the ensemble wants to release enough to make it happen.

    Perhaps entry level games like Zip-Zap-ZOp, Biddle-Biddle-Bop, Whoosh, Stuck in the Mud, Link Tag, and others have been used and abused by theatre teachers so bogged down by the reality of classroom arts education where the student to teacher ratio can be upwards of 60-1 on a daily basis, where 20 of the 60 don’t have the motivation or the inkling to be there. This residue of BAD situation, coupled with non-release and peppered with survival have made these games have a stigma which seems too hard to overcome.

    We need a revolution.
    A revolve back to play we all lost.
    Then it was about the game and play and exploring without worrying about outcomes or whether the games lead to anything.

    Just play for play sake.

    If the artistic process is cyclical, then it can start with playing just to play which then can lead to collaboration and ensemble and release.

    Sometimes the candy is there to lure out our inner children.

  • Love this, Randall. Yes, I agree with you: “the artistic process is cyclical, then it can start with playing just to play which then can lead to collaboration and ensemble and release.”

    With the class size issue, and the variances in commitment, is there a way to establish free play? Self-directed play that allows for boredom, silliness, different levels of play whether it’s witty, physical, role-playing, etc.?

    I think the challenge, and what you comment on as well with “Entry level games… used and abused by theatre teachers so bogged down by the reality of classroom arts education”, is to let play be THE focus.

    Right now play is a lure into the work. My suggestion is play IS the work. Play to build an ensemble. Play to explore. Play to hone one’s point of view. Play to empathize.

    But I fell that Play is seen, right now, as a way to get the kids involved and then it’s dropped because of the “reality of classroom art education.” I would even extend your observation to the reality of class as a whole. And, as I’m encountering in the current market, the reality of business.

    Play is needed but not fully supported. Like short-form improvisation over long-form. How do we allow for all the variances inside play?