About a year ago, Ric Walker introduced me to an exercise. I liked it and tweaked it and started using it myself. It has become one of my favorites.
- Player A starts a scene doing something. The activity should be simple and the actor should do it in a neutral way without making a choice for their mood or emotional state.
- Player B enters and says the first line of dialog. This first line should be simple and innocuous and should be delivered in a neutral way.
- Player A then should react impulsively and emotionally to that line of dialog. They shouldn’t think about it, the reaction should be quick and decisive.
- They should then play out the scene.
This exercise can lead to some surprising and very fun opening moments to scenes. When someone reacts in a specific emotional way to a neutral initiation the results are almost always funny. Often, we get an immediate sense of who these characters are and what’s going on. And most importantly, we have a game ready to play: what player B does and says can provoke player A, over and over again.
The key to this working well is in the reaction. It needs to be specific, strong and believable. Sometimes the reaction is so overacted that it’s no longer believable. Sometimes the reaction is too weak and muted and doesn’t feel fun. Sometimes it’s not specific enough and has nothing to do with Player B’s initiation. It feels random and unearned. If Player A treats whatever Player B says as important and lets it affect them personally, their reaction will often be just right.
If a player is having trouble making strong reactions, encourage them to react with their whole body, not just their words. Tell them to move first and speak once they are in motion. Have them relax their jaw and breath in and out through their mouth while they are doing their activity, waiting for the first line. Or maybe, just give them permission to overact. By overacting for a while, they may feel more comfortable making choices that aren’t so amped, but stronger than what they’re used to.
What are examples of innocuous first lines? Anything simple like, “The mail is here,” “I turned down the AC,” “I’m all packed,” or “I have that book you wanted.” They should be neutral so that Player A has the freedom to react in a variety of ways. “I killed your dog,” is not neutral. Nor is, “You got the promotion!” Reacting in a predictable way to a loaded first line does not produce the same fun and surprising results. At least that’s what I suspect.
One nice variation on this is to restart the scene several times using the same activity and first line and instructing Player A to react in different ways each time.