Status Exercises in Improv

Someone on reddit asked about status exercises. Here is my response.

It’s important to stress that status is much more useful in improv if you look at status as behavior, as opposed to social rank. Status is how you carry yourself, or how you treat the other characters in the scene. You can be a low status president or a high status janitor. And in fact, flipping status from what you might expect because of social rank is a lot of fun.

I have used cards when teaching status for a long time. I don’t have people put them on their foreheads. Instead, I have people pick a card and then instruct them that the card rank corresponds to how they carry themselves and expect to be treated. Or I tell them that the card corresponds to how they should treat the other person. In some cases I give people two cards, one for how they see themselves and one for how they see the other person. This combination can be enlightening. Someone who sees themselves as a 3 and their scene partner as a Jack, is very different than someone who sees themself as a King or Queen and someone else as a Jack.

Another variation gives out two different cards for the same person. Perhaps I see myself as a King, but my scene partner sees me as a 9 at best. That can create some interesting friction in the scene.

As an advanced exercise, I give each person two cards, one for how they see themselves and one for how they see their scene partner. This can provide for some very interesting combinations.

Another variation is for three people. Start with a two person scene and give one person two cards. The first card is for how they treat their original scene partner and the second card is for how they treat the person who will join the scene midway through. Just like in real life, the exercise highlights how we treat people differently depending on what status we perceive them to have. This same kind of pivoting can be done with how we how we perceive ourselves in relationship to other person.

There is so much to say about status.

  • I like to do warmups where I have people walk around and interact with each other all the while imagining different status levels. After I ask them what behaviors they noticed in themselves and each other when they were playing a high or low status. This is where I usually stress that status is about behavior and perception, not about actual social rank.
  • I like to have people choose a status at the beginning of a scene and then use that as a clue to figure out the roles and relationship of the characters, i.e. I’m a high status character and so I must be the boss.
  • But then I also like to give people base realities with inherent status and ask them to flip the status through their behavior, i.e. I’m the child in this scene, so I’ll use high status behavior.
    I like cards because there is so much more to status than high or low. One of my favorite cards is the Jack, because Jacks often like to boss others around, but they have to demure to Kings, Queens and Aces. Also, a truly high status person might have such a high status that they don’t try to boss people around, they are magnanimous and generous instead.
  • I’ve found these exercises lead to wonderful scenes, because status automatically establishes a relationship through behavior and because flipping status is a great example of behavior driven games.
  • I’m realizing just at this moment how inherently sexist using Jacks, Queens and Kings is. You might want to simply use cards Ace-10 from a deck of cards and leave out Kings, Queens and Jacks.

I hope that helps.

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