The Three Layers of Improv Games

Circle of Confessions is my favorite Improv ice-breaker game. I use it whenever I teach a new group of students. The game itself is simple: all the students stand in a circle and one person steps into the circle and introduce themselves "hi I'm Uri", everyone reply "hello Uri". Then the person in the middle confesses something true about themselves. It can be as mundane as "I love Harry Potter" or as personal as "I'm gay". Then everyone in the group who feels that what was said is true about them steps into the circle. Then the original person counts "One. Two Three" and everyone leaves the circle except one new person and the cycle begins anew.

The first thing this game allows is getting the student to know each other’s names and some other information about them. It’s a great way to let people bond over similarities and to let students discover who are the other people in the group.  

The second thing I do is to spice things up toward the end by turning this from an introduction game into a puzzle game by saying "OK, now let’s try to get as many people of the group into the circle", or "now try to get everyone but one person into the circle" or "try to get only one person into the circle". This game really works on observational skills and pattern recognition. You need to find out what you have in common with one, many or a specific number of people from the group.

But I also use this game for a third and very different reason. When I'm teaching a new group I start off with this game because it helps me understand who's who among the students. The person who will not back off if there are two people left in the circle after the count of "One. Two. Three" will most likely also remain stubborn and stick to their own ideas during scenes, the student that use the spot in the middle in order to make a joke rather than play the game – will probably keep making jokes throughout the class, the person struggling to talk while in the middle will need more guiding but they have guts, the way people declare the counting of “One. Two. Three” is a great indication of their default choice of status, students that always jump out of the circle are shy and will need encouragement. The list goes on.

Students think this game is all just an icebreaker with the added bonus of getting to know each other a bit better. But for me, this game is all about getting to know my students intimately before we even start the actual class. I haven’t even mentioned the gold mine of information that the content gives to a teacher. It tells me a lot about the subject matter that I can use for example or scene suggestions, what topics interest my students and the homogeneity of the class. If there are many stubborn students I do a few trust exercises and talk about the importance of listening and letting other people have the spotlight, if there are shy students I'll encourage them to participate more or add exercises where everyone gets to participate.

Circle of Confessions is a great example of how every improv exercise has three layers in it: the "Fun layer”, the "Functional layer” and the "Psychological layer”.

The fun layer – where we just play a game and enjoy ourselves. We can enjoy many things: winning, overcoming an obstacle, overcoming an opponent, working as a team, etc. 

– The Functional layer – every game has a specific function to it. The function can be working on a specific skill like endowment or working on a specific group goal like breaking the ice with a new group.

– The Psychological layer – where we reveal who we really are to everyone who is attentive. A handy example of this function is word association games that let people glimpse into the way our mind works. 

It took me a lot of time to understand that every Improv exercise has all three layers even when it might seem that they only have one or two, like The Circle of Confessions and every person that understands that can gain a lot of insights from paying attention to all three layers.

"Hi, my name is Uri Lifshitz and I love Improv. One. Two. Three"