Emotional Yo-yo

Emotional Yo-Yo is an approach to creating dynamic, interesting improv scenes with games that are playable, surprising and funny.

Last week I wrote about reacting strongly to innocuous lines from your scene partner to immediately create interesting moments. It’s quite easy. Just listen to your scene partner, take what they say personally, and respond in way that is specific, strong and believable. That’s a great way to create a single moment, but to make a great scene you need to learn how to play with it.

Here is an exercise called Emotional Yo-yo:

  • Start a simple scene: like two people involved in an everyday activity. Don’t prethink it too much. Just start talking.*
  • One player should choose to react strongly to something from the other player. Once someone reacts in this way, they are the yo-yo and the other player is the hand.
  • If you are the hand, you should play with the yo-yo. Your job is to do and say things that either provoke the yo-yo or placate the yo-yo.
  • If you are the yo-yo, your job is to be affected. Every reaction doesn’t have to be absurdly strong, but often it is. Sometimes the hand will push you away, sometimes the hand will pull you back, sometimes the hand will spin you around. You should be flexible and let yourself be moved.

Some hints and notes

As the hand:

  • Your job is to keep providing the yo-yo with things that might provoke them, but let them choose how they want to react to it. Just set the table, let them decide what to react to.
  • Sometimes what your character wants is to placate, but what you, the improviser, want is to provoke. You can do both. For instance, maybe the yo-yo gets upset when do and say certain things, and your character doesn’t want them to be upset. Your character can do and say things to placate them, to try to calm them down. You might even succeed, and if you do, then it’s time to once again do or say something to provoke them and start the behavior loop all over again.
  • You manipulate a yo-yo with subtle moves, just a flick of the wrist can have a huge affect. Make sure at least some of your moves to provoke are similarly subtle.

As the yo-yo:

  • If your first reaction in the scene is happiness, then you should be reacting more or less happy with each provocation. Don’t react in different ways to each provocation, then the scene will be a mess. You are usually playing with one type of reaction in a scene, not bouncing from one thing to another. In some cases you can move back and forth from opposing emotional responses across a spectrum (happy to sad and back), but that is as complicated as it should get.
  • Make sure you are listening closely to your scene partner. If they are doing a good job placating you, let yourself be placated. Let your responses come from them and what they do and say. Always be hunting for things in the other person. Sometimes what they do will only provoke you a little bit, that’s ok.
  • Remember to keep your reactions specific and believable. Some players tend to play emotions in an extreme, unbelievable way. For them, they need to learn how to reign it in a bit. Other players never have emotional reactions, they need to learn how to push their boundaries to increase the range of emotions they feel comfortable with. Some can have huge emotional outbursts that are specific and real, it’s different for everyone.

Variations and other notes:

  • Sometimes the hand and yo-yo switch roles. This can work. It may be worth trying to do this on purpose, telling the players that they must switch roles in the middle of the scene.
  • Once you have tried this and practiced many times, you may try to do scenes where both people are yo-yo and both are hands.
  • Or perhaps it would work with three people in various combinations, for instance, one person being the yo-yo and multiple people being the hand.

If you get a chance to try Emotional Yo-yo, please let me know how it goes.

* For this exercise to work well, it helps to start in a neutral place. This is not necessarily good advice for starting scenes in general. But it works here because we are practicing interjecting emotional responses into scenes that are out of proportion with the thing that provokes them.

** Photo by TheArches on flickr.

7 thoughts on “Emotional Yo-yo”

  1. Hi Kevin, I used this exercise, along with “specific, strong, and believable” at a class I led the other night and both exercises worked very well. I think emotional Yo-Yo worked well for several reasons. For one thing, it gave the players a very specific thing to do in the scene. Also, their task was fun. Who doesn’t like pulling the strings and being manipulative? The yo-yo role was also fun for people, as they were given permission to just let go and give into their emotion. The audience liked it because they wanted to see how far each performer would go.
    I gave location as a suggestion to start the scene. My guess is that you’d prefer no suggestion for this, but giving location had an interesting side effect. People are prone to doing transactional/teaching/strangers just meeting scenes when location is given as a suggestion. This did happen at the beginning of many of the scenes, but the emotional yo-yo would change that, as personal details were needed to provoke and embody the emotion. So I would recommend this as one way to correct a scene that’s not going well.
    Thanks for the great exercise.
    – Dana

  2. I’m not getting this. Would you provide an example of a yo-yo scene? Some transcribed lines would help.

  3. Sure!
    A: I got a raise today. An extra $20 a week.
    B: (Horrified and scared) Oh no! You are going to move out aren’t you? Leave me to pay the rent by myself!
    A: Of course not! It’s just a little spending money. I wouldn’t move out.
    B: (Calming down) Ok… you’re right. I’m overreacting.
    A: It’s ok. Hey let’s go out to eat. I’m buying.
    B: (Horrified again) Oh sure. Take me out to a nice restaurant to tell me that you are leaving me, so I don’t make a scene.

    And so on. Does that help?

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