This is just a quick description of an exercise that can be used in pre-game workshopping, to get people to experience the workings of status relationships between characters.
Status play is one of the topics that Keith Johnstone makes a big thing of in his writing about impro, and rightly so, as it’s often key to understanding and conveying the dynamic of a one-to-one or group relationship. Humans are very highly skilled at automatically sensing status cues, and their perception of status relationships informs their behaviour in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
Johnstone makes the important point that high and low status isn’t necessarily the same as high and low social rank – sometimes the person of lower social rank may actually have the higher status in a particular transaction.
Status exercise for three
You need three people, and two chairs – one high and one low, ideally. It’s fairly quiet, so you can run several sets of three alongisde each other, if you want to use it for a large group. You don’t need a facilitator to guide each group of three people: you can just explain it to them (and do an example) and then let them run it themselves.
First, decide on a scenario. It can be pretty much anything in which two people of different status are having a conversation. Examples:
- job interview;
- customer at a cafe;
- servant helping their employer dress;
- fan asking star for a selfie together;
… and so on. It’s best if it’s a reasonably open scenario into which other characters can be introduced, so ‘two astronauts alone in a lunar shuttle’ wouldn’t be so good.
Assign the two characters to two of your three participants. The high-status character starts on the high chair, the other on the low chair. Have them improvise a scene in which their status relationship is apparent.
After a minute or two, it’s time to change. The third participant decides on the change. It could be:
- swap the two characters (so the person playing the servant is now playing the employer, and vice versa);
- swap the statuses (so the servant is now high-status and the employer is low-status… perhaps the servant has some secret hold over the employer that allows them to dominate them? perhaps the interviewer is desperate for the candidate to take the job? etc);
- swap themselves in to play one of the two characters;
- swap themselves in as a new character, replacing one of the existing two;
- combinations of the above.
If the third participant swapped themselves in, then the person swapped out now becomes the moderator and must decide, after another minute or two, what the next swap will be. The participants should use a variety of different swaps, and make sure they each get a fair share of time playing both high and low status. It’s best to use the simple swaps first, of course, until people have the idea and are comfortable.
In all cases, keep the scene flowing; don’t worry about any breaks in continuity or gaps of logic.
Keep this going for 10–15 minutes, or until everyone has had enough…
Afterwards, it might be useful for the participants to talk to each other about how it felt to them to play high or low status. This is particularly useful if the scene was emotionally intense.
Generalizing it to groups of sizes other than three is left as an exercise for the reader 🙂