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Me vs. Game: A Love Story

by John Ratliff

During the first few years I was doing improv, I developed a reputation as someone who hated game. (As in “the game of the scene.”) I didn’t hate it, really; I just thought it ran counter to the two things I really wanted to do, which were (a) grounded, realistic scenework and (b) mind-blowing trippy organic stuff. (Which aren’t as different as they might seem, but that’s a different blog post.)

To my way of thinking, game was at best a crutch and at worst a severe limitation. I wanted to be free to do anything, to be completely in the moment. How could I do that if I was busy trying to follow the rules of some stupid game?

I still feel this way about some forms of game play. I’ve never liked any kind of improv in which there can be a “wrong” move, and in the narrowest version of game, it’s possible to screw it up by doing it wrong. (I say I don’t like that style of play because improv is about unconditional support, but to be honest, it terrifies me, because one of my biggest fears is that everybody else except me knows what’s going on.)

So I kept hacking away at learning how to do grounded, emotionally realistic scenework, which I do not regret. And … I started noticing some things along the way.

First, although I was getting better at playing realistic scenes, they often felt a little slack and wander-y. Huh, I thought, maybe there’s some way to give these scenes more of a sense of purpose and momentum.

Second, I noticed that a lot of my friends who had been working on game were getting really good at improv in general.

Third, I kept taking workshops and classes about game, and my understanding of it gradually expanded. In particular, I remember taking a workshop with Brandon Gardner (from UCB NYC) in which he discussed the stem-and-petals analogy: the game isn’t the flower, it’s the stem of the flower, and the scene is whatever grows off that main stem. Once you know what the game of the scene is, you can go in any direction; if you really know what the game is, you’ll eventually get back to it.

Suddenly, game seemed much more open and promising. I had been thinking of it as a grinding reduction of the scene down to one idea. But this was different; this was a platform you could launch off of in any direction. And it was also something that you could incorporate into a larger scene, regardless of whether the larger scene was about the game (no matter what Matt Besser says). Even if you’re just using it as one of many tools, it’s one of the most useful and universal of those tools. At the very least, you need to be familiar with it.

Improvisers who are initially drawn to fast and gamey play often start wanting to play more grounded, realistic scenes after a few years. I went in the opposite direction: for a while now, I’ve been trying to find opportunities to get better at game. As in, for instance, workshops like the ones Brandon will be teaching May 8th. I also auditioned for Stool Pigeon, which is all about premise-based game play, so I could rehearse it on a weekly basis. And now I’m playing in a group that does The Deconstruction, so I have to think about game-based scenes for at least part of the show.

In short: I’ve learned to love game. And if I can learn to love it, anyone can.


John Ratliff is the Conservatory Director at ColdTowne Theater, where he was voted Best Teacher or Coach in 2015. He has studied improv at ColdTowne and at iO and The Annoyance in Chicago.