Break them Barriers

My last post about improv discussed the concept of “Yes, And,” and provided examples around the four possible encounters in a conversation. In case you missed it, here is a link to dive in before going any further.

If you’re solid to continue, then let’s do it.

I’m ready to discuss the principle of List Building.

This is the tool that improvisers use to create their funny. It’s built around making connections and allowing different trains of thought to move in and out of your mind. While improvisers term this “List Building,” the reality is far from one single technique or exercise. There are innumerable ways to connect with the world around you. 

All List Building does is help you tap into it without feeling too overwhelmed. Let’s look at some examples.

One of the most famous is called Word Association. If you’ve ever been to a therapist’s office, you most likely have experience with this. And it has roots well outside therapy and improv.

The exercise is done by one person looking at another and saying the first word that comes to mind. The second person turns to a third and passes on another word they thought of, associative to the first. In other words, when someone tells you a word, you latch onto the very first [hopefully unprepared] word that pops to mind, and you then pass that word off to another, who completes the same process.

Here’s an example: child -> shoes -> scuff marks.

Interacting in this exercise by myself, this is the chain I created. Child made me think of a child wearing shoes, which then took me to the scuff marks shoes leave on the floor. One inspires the next, which stimulates the next, and so on. 

When workshopping this, you want to steer away from preparing a word or expecting a word from someone else. Clear your mind, don’t be ready, exercise no control, and when that word is delivered, you react natural and pass on the first word you think of. 

There’s no right or wrong. We care more about honesty than being appropriate, though the concepts of respect and care aren’t thrown entirely out the window.

Another exercise is called “Connect the Dots.” While Word Association can be accomplished alone or with a group, Connect the Dots needs at least three people. Because you are going to create a picture of sorts one person at a time.

It begins with one person out front or in the middle, and they declare themselves to be someone or something. I am a snake. Or, I am my mother’s mid-life crisis. Or, I am an expensive yacht. Again, the suggestion can literally be anything.

After the dot, or pivot point, has been established, everyone begins associating with it to enhance the surrounding. We want to stay within a sort of boundary and provide other examples of what exists in that world. Let’s take our initial examples, and I’ll demonstrate.

  • First person: I am a snake.
  • Second person: I am the tall grass the snake lives in.
  • Third person: I am the scales on the snake.
  • Fourth person: I am the mouse unaware of the snake’s presence.
  • First person: I am my mother’s mid-life crisis.
  • Second person: I’m her new lover that the other two lovers don’t know about.
  • Third person: I’m Gucci, and I love mid-life crises.
  • Fourth person: I’m one of her children trying on mom’s extensive wardrobe.
  • First person: I’m an expensive yacht.
  • Second person: I’m the bill for repairs when things go wrong.
  • Third person: I’m the excited professional moocher that shows up to yacht parties.
  • Fourth person: I’m the yacht’s engine.

And so on. The more involved in this exercise, the merrier. And with more experience comes more enlightened connections and creation. Players expand to connect not only off of the first suggestion, but the third, or seven, and eventually, we end up with a cacophony of ideas, all complementing each other in ways they couldn’t do alone.

You can go as literal, figurative, metaphorical, or whatever, so long as the connection is understood or followable (and the ability to follow another’s train of thought is a skill you develop and enhance through these exercises once you have a grasp of your own mind). Going too far left-field throws off list building exercises unless those participating can find a way to join that person in left field.

Some common terms that relate well to list building are storyboard, spider web, brainstorming, and problem-solving. The ability to isolate one factor and then springboard off it to uncover new, potentially unknown ideas almost as old as time itself. 

Creativity, curiosity, interest, and adventure are training grounds of list building. And while I’ve only listed two possible exercises here, the amount available is enormous.

List Building is a crux of perspective, understanding, growth, evolution, and improvement. We all use it every day to varying degrees, but recognizing it isn’t always smooth or clear. Like anything worthwhile, this takes training, application, trial and error, and the courage to “not be ready” or “relinquish control” as we experiment. But it is fun, powerful, productive, and revolutionary in the results that can be found.

Here’s an example of how I used list building during an improv workshop that led to an entertaining scene. I was out on the stage with one other person, my scene partner, and our coach gave us the suggestion of laundry

As soon as she said it, my mind began associating with it and creating connections of a potentially fun, compelling, and interesting scene to create. Within seconds I settled on this direction: my scene partner and I were socks, hoping to not get stolen by the laundry elves and separated in the dryer like so many other socks. 

Taking into account the “Yes, And” principle I shared last time, after I started the scene as a sock, laying on the ground and hoping to not lose my other half, my scene partner immediately joined me on the ground and didn’t miss a beat in confirming our reality. Though the scene didn’t last very long, we had a blast.

A more practical way to look at list building is as a tool to break down barriers. When you begin thinking outside of your normal status, you become aware of new things. For me, one of the most significant new areas, back when I was learning, was considering the nature, perspective, and emotional state of another human being. I began trying to see things from other perspectives, and I noticed how my interactions with others were improving dramatically. Misunderstandings were less, short temper moments diminished, and I began relating to those around me more.

All because of a concept that encourages honesty, empathy, no control, and courage in the unknown. 

If you’ve managed to read this far and you have questions about this, please reach out. I love questions and am more than happy to engage in a conversation and see where we go. I’m not interested in being right; more-so about a discovery that can provide us more meaningful experiences.

You are all awesome. Keep smiling, keep laughing, and I’ll catch you the next time.

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