Circles, Mirrors, Transformations: Acting Exercises and Theatre Games

"Transformation! In the moment of playing, a path to body, mind, and intuition is opened. A cleansing, a dissolving of past attitudes (approval/disapproval, excuses, reasons, "I can't," "I won't," "I should have," roles, soap opera) takes place, which allows a space for the real communication and the person/the hidden self to emerge. In that dissolve there is no returning to past limitations (roles). The butterfly does not become the caterpillar again. That past moment (life) is exhausted. Transformation!" —Viola Spolin with Mary Ann Brandt, Theatre Games

Every acting teacher has a stockpile of exercises — role-playing scenarios, simple games, basic improvisations — to pull out in a pinch during rehearsal or in class. The rules and restrictions of the game free the players to be someone else for an instant, or even to be a more authentic version of themselves. Games are passed from teacher to student, and often no two teachers play the same game with the same rules.

In Circle Mirror Transformation, playwright Annie Baker has carefully scripted the dialogue for traditional acting and creative drama games. To help the actors prepare for their roles, however, Baker encourages them to play the games for real in rehearsal. Here are the original rules of a few of the games seen onstage:

  • Greetings, as described by Viola Spolin:
    Players walk around, moving through the space substance. [The instructor should coach the players as follows:] "Allow the space to flow through you and you to flow through the space. Allow the space to flow through you and your fellow player. Touch a fellow player and allow fellow player to touch you. See a fellow player. Allow the fellow player to see you."
  • Line Repetition, as described by Renee Emuna:
    The method involves breaking the group into pairs. Each pair engages in a conversation using only two lines. The most commonly used lines are "I want it" and "You can't have it!" The lines can be said in numerous ways, according to a wide array of emotional attitudes and strategies and with a range of intonations and voices (from whispering to screaming), but participants are instructed to use only these words. . . . The method is an ideal warm-up to theatrical improvisation because it immediately alleviates anxieties about acting and improvising.
  • Word-at-a-time, as described by Keith Johnstone:
    The players construct a story by adding a word each. The sentences have to be grammatical and they haveto make sense. [Other forms of this game have players] add a paragraph each, but I wanted to prevent everyone from thinking beyond the next word. I asked two volunteers to sit beside me. Then I said, "Let's invent a story by telling a word each:" Sally / was / going / mad / because / her / father / wanted / to / put / his / horse / into / her / stable. Some of these stories fizzle out after one sentence, but some may complete themselves.
  • Gibberish with a Past Incident, as described by Viola Spolin:
    Two players, preferable sitting at a table. Using gibberish, A tells B of a past incident, such as a fight or a trip to the dentist. B then tells A something that happened, also using gibberish. To avoid preliminary discussion the two players should be picked at random just prior to going on.
  • Circle Mirror Transformation, as described by Elizabeth Swados
    (Her version is called "Sound and Movement"):
    Aim: To make movement and sound one intention Going around the circle, each student in turn introduces a repeated movement for a part of the body. The student should invent a vocal sound that goes with or is inspired by the movement. Use abstract sound, keeping it simple, so that the group can repeat it back.
— Compiled by Charles Haugland and Cheyenne Postell

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