How to do a pattern game

The pattern game is an improv exercise and an opening for Harold. Use it to map out a network of words and ideas which all connect to the suggestion.

A pattern game is an improv exercise. Take a suggestion and through associations, map out a web of words, ideas, memories & thoughts which all connect back to the original word. Historically it has been used as the primary opening for Harold. The pattern game has evolved and changed over the years. Here is how it was taught to me, 25 years ago, and how I’ve taught it ever since.

Get a suggestion of a word. This is the seed of the pattern game. Consider the word and say another word that comes to mind. Consider this new word and then say another word that comes to mind. It should be associated to the last word said, not necessarily any of the words previously. Continue. This is the basic backbone of the pattern game. One word leads to another which leads to another. For instance:

bottle -> rocket -> space -> ship -> captain -> general -> electric -> spark -> ignite -> fire

Two things to notice about pattern games at this stage:

  1. Often you will have a series of words that all relate to one another. In this one, rocket, space, ship and captain all interrelate. That set of words might inspire a scene about a captain of a space ship, exploring the galaxy. Also, electric, spark, ignite and fire might inspire a scene about an arsonist, or some detectives investigating a fire. Of course, any of those words alone might inspire these scenes, but a series of words exploring one idea makes it easier to remember and more likely to unlock an initiation.
  2. Some words create pivots in the pattern game. For instance, the word electric pivots the pattern game away from the themes of space and the military and starts the new series ending in fire. These pivots are important and necessary. Without them, a pattern game can easily get stuck exploring the same category of ideas over and over again.

So when practicing pattern games you should embrace both kinds of associations: ones that continue exploring the path you are on, and others that pivot you onto new paths.

Once you practice this a few times, it’s time to add a goal. And the goal is a simple one, get back to the original suggestion through a new path–ideally through a different meaning or connotation of the suggestion. For instance:

farm -> corn -> syrup -> maple -> Canada -> health care -> doctor -> patient -> prescription -> drugs -> doping -> athlete -> team -> farm

This goal to get back to the original word is important. The larger goal of a pattern game is to illuminate the suggestion. If you get the suggestion ‘farm’ from the audience, they don’t really want to see a bunch of scenes that all take place on a farm. Perhaps one scene about a farmer planting corn would be fine, but not 3 or 10. We use the pattern game to expand the suggestion into many ideas for scenes. We can choose to be inspired by any word in the pattern game, but those direct connections to the suggestion can be valuable. Taking a suggestion for a Harold is akin to making a pact with the audience: to really use the word and explore it. By connecting back directly to the word, you are discovering things about the suggestion.

Although you could do a pattern game with one loop, traditionally we try to find 3 loops. For instance:

work -> job -> pay check -> savings -> coupon -> budget -> accountant -> work -> broken -> wing -> airplane -> baggage -> relationship -> divorce -> reconciliation -> working it out -> work -> wage -> war -> soldier -> rifle -> jammed -> death -> taxes -> W2 -> work

Using this method we have found 6 different connections to work:

  1. job
  2. accountant
  3. broken
  4. working it out
  5. wage
  6. W2

In this example, some of the six connections are themselves related. However, you still have a few distinctly different meanings of the suggestion to inspire your scenes.

That’s basically it. That’s a pattern game and it doesn’t need much else to work. It’s not the most theatrically inspiring opening for a Harold. But that’s not the point. Doing pattern games helps train your brain to expand suggestions in many different directions. And it trains you to take a suggestion and see the many different meanings and connotations directly associated with it. It teaches you to stay in the moment, always following the last move and to simultaneously keep in mind the goal of connecting the current moment with a previous moment.

Most of the links in the pattern games above are single words. When they are not, they are still single ideas and concepts. They are not phrases, or sentences or monologues or premises or snippets of dialog. You can (eventually) add things like that. But don’t rush to change the exercises. There is value in practicing this bare bones pattern game either by yourself or with your team. You will strengthen your ability to traverse the web of interconnected thoughts both within yourself and between you and your teammates.

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