Emotional Options is an improv game where two performers act out a scene on stage, while a third acts as a “caller”, occasionally freezing the action, and asking the audience for new emotions for one or other of the players. It’s a funny game to watch, and the sudden shifts in emotion almost always produce an interesting scene.
Some players describe the game in advance. Keep the explanation short and sweet. Something like this:
Mike: For our next scene, my teammates are going to perform a scene for you, but every now and then I’m going to stop the action and ask you to suggest new emotions for them.
Or, if you prefer, you can just begin the scene, and let the audience figure out the rules as you go.
We might start with any simple suggestion – a relationship between two people, “what just happened?”, a location, etc.
Mike: Can I get a location please?
Audience member: A mall.
Mike: A mall. Thanks.
Whenever you get any kind of suggestion, it’s always a good idea to repeat the audience suggestion clearly, so the rest of the audience, and your teammates, can hear it. In this game, you will also want to repeat the suggestions of emotions.
James and Doris begin a scene in a mall, using fairly neutral emotions. That doesn’t mean impassive and robotic – just an everyday level of emotion. Mike will wait off to one side of the stage, looking for the right moment to stop the scene.
James: Well, we’ve got to get Eddie something for his birthday.
Doris: How about a tie?
James: That’s too predictable. I want to find him a birthday present that really makes a statement.
Doris: You didn’t buy me a present when it was my birthday.
James: You’re not my boss.
We’ve set up the basics of the scene, and we don’t want to wait too long before starting the game, so the caller stops the action.
Mike: FREEZE! Can we get an emotion for James?
Mike: Lust it is. Thank you.”
The scene continues, and James immediately looks lustful, biting his lip and running his hands over his own body.
James: But Eddie is more than a boss. He just exudes this… this power… do you know what I mean? A virile, manly power… and I just want to give him gifts… to show him what a fantastic, attractive boss he is.
If you get an emotion like lust or hate, the obvious choice is to direct it towards someone else on stage, but there are other options. The object of your emotion could be yourself, or some other person or thing. If you commit to the emotion, it will be interesting to watch.
Doris looks at him, concerned.
Mike: FREEZE! An emotion for Doris, please?
Audience member: Giddy.
Mike: Giddy! Thank you.
Doris starts to giggle and point.
Doris: Oh, this is so cute. I’ve never seen you like this. Hahahah. You really like him, don’t you. I mean, really… hahahah.
James: Not at all. I just appreciate him as a boss, that’s all. I appreciate his cool head… his thick, muscular neck… the way his shirt flows over his bulging muscles…
Doris: Oh my. You have the hots for him. Hahahah.
Mike: FREEZE! Can I get a new emotion for James, please?
Audience member: Fear!
Mike: Fear. Thank you.
Mike keeps his requests for emotions simple and succinct. Beginning players often want to vary the wording, but this can cause problems. For example, if you change the words to “How will James react to that?”, the audience may suggest an action (“He pulls out a gun and shoots her!”). Repetition works well here. Stick to some variant of “Can I have a new emotion for James?”
James: Oh no! I’ve said too much! You can’t tell anyone! If anyone finds out, I’d be so ashamed. And if Eddie found out, I don’t know how he would react. I think he would hate me.
Doris: Hahahah. Maybe I’ll tell and maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll give them clues in a dance, like this…
She performs a strange dance.
Improvisers often fall back on words. If you see an opportunity for a more physical reaction, take it!
James: Please! I’m begging you!
Mike: FREEZE! A different emotion for Doris, please.
Audience member: Suspicious!
Mike: Suspicious. Thanks.
Doris: Wait a minute. What’s going on here. All of a sudden you’re interested in Eddie your boss. You’re trying to get rid of me, aren’t you!
James: (Gasps) Yes! It’s true! I didn’t think you’d guess! Please don’t go doing anything crazy!
James hasn’t forgotten that he’s still supposed to be playing fear, but he’s found a new way to use it – now being afraid of how Doris will react. If you’re stuck with a single emotion for a long time, try playing it at different levels of intensity. And whenever another character speaks or acts, listen carefully and react to it using your current emotion.
Doris: You and Eddie probably cooked this up together. You’re probably videotaping this right now, just so you can laugh at me.
This scene might continue for a while, but let’s say we want to end it. The performers may find an ending on their own. If they don’t, and the caller feels like he wants to bring it to a close, he can wrap it up by asking for a “final emotion”. This reminds the players that they should try to end the scene.
Mike: Can I have a final emotion for James, please.
Note the wording – “a final emotion for James”. This might mean the final emotion in the whole scene, or just the final one for him. It gives some flexibility.
Audience member: Anticipation.
Mike: Thank you. Anticipation.
James: Okay, it’s true. Eddie and I did make up a plan. As you’re about to see… any minute now…
James looks around, anticipating.
Doris: Agh! What’s this tripwire on the ground? It’s attached to a bomb!
James: Not a bomb, but a… (he looks at her expectantly, anticipating her reply)
Doris: Two bombs! A poison dart!
It looks like the scene still isn’t wrapping up – “anticipation” is actually a tough one to work with, especially at the end of a scene – so Mike gives them a second chance.
Mike: FREEZE! Can I have a final emotion for Doris, please.
Audience member: Paranoia!
Mike: She’s already suspicious, so that’s kind of similar.
An audience will often suggest emotions we’ve already seen, or minor variations of them. Feel free to politely reject those suggestions, and ask the same person for a new choice.
Mike: Another emotion?
Audience member: Confusion!
Mike: Confusion, thanks.
The scene continues. Doris looks confused, as she follows the tripwire.
Doris: Oh, James, I don’t understand what’s gone wrong between us. We used to go out and have fun, and now it’s so complicated… do you like me, are you trying to dump me? Are you gay? And why is this tripwire attached to a large pink stuffed rabbit?
She’s asking questions but also advancing the scene by introducing a rabbit.
James walks over to the imaginary rabbit.
James: If you will just look at the rabbit, all your questions will be answered… in just a moment…
James is still gamely playing anticipation, but it’s not bringing the scene to a close. Watching on the sidelines, Mike would like end the scene, but he’s already asked for a “final” emotion for each of them. Now what? Here’s a cheat that usually works.
Mike: FREEZE! And, just for fun, can we get one last emotion for BOTH of them – how about a positive emotion.
One last positive emotion for both of them. The “just for fun” part acknowledges that he’s breaking the rules. Be sure to ask for a “positive emotion” – it will usually bring the scene to a satisfactory close – often with a hug or laughter.
Audience member: Amused.
Mike: Amused. Thanks.
James and Doris examine the rabbit.
James: This is hilarious!
Doris: I’m doing it, I’m pulling the tripwire. (Laughs)
James: See! It’s a light-up message! It says “Happy Birthday!” Isn’t that hilarious!
Doris: Hahahah! That’s crazy! My birthday was months ago!
A few dos and don’ts…
Don’t “ease in”
For this game to work well, players should adopt the new emotion immediately and energetically. Some performers will try to find a reason to adopt the new emotion, or “ease in” to it. This creates a cerebral, boring scene. Here’s an example of how not to do it.
Doris: I love you.
James: I love you, too.
Mike: FREEZE! A new emotion for Doris, please.
Doris: I love you very much. And we talked about getting engaged. So I just wondered, did you happen to get me a ring? Because it’s really important to me that I have a five-carat diamond ring.
Obviously, Doris has a plan. She hopes to make her character disappointed with the ring (or lack of one), which will give her a good reason to become angry. It’s a heavy-handed, ponderous approach.
Lead with the emotion
Here’s the right approach. Doris should lead with the emotion – immediately switch her emotion to anger, before she even knows what she’s going to be angry about. If you throw yourself into an emotion strongly, you’ll find it’s easy to justify it.
Let’s rewind to the suggestion of anger…
Doris flips from love to anger.
Doris: How DARE you… say you love me!
Mike: But you told me you loved ME!
Doris: Yes, and then you just copied me, you bastard. If you’d really cared, you’d have said something original and creative. (Snarling) I’m supposed to INSPIRE you!
Show the emotion, don’t talk about it
Some “talky” performers will use many words to describe how they feel, but don’t show it. Given a suggestion like “lust,” they might say something like this:
Charles: You see, Doris, I find you really, well, attractive. You have certain… effects… on me that make me want to… ahem… how shall I put this?…
All this description of emotion is usually an excuse for not showing it. It would be better to use fewer words and stronger emotions.
Charles contorts his body, barely able to control his urges.
Charles: Hi-i-i-i there.
The second approach is more likely to please an audience.
Emotional Options is an improv game that also produces great scenes. The onstage performers get practice in making choices based on an emotional choice rather than a new idea. This is a valuable principle. The caller develops a different type of skill, getting a feel for the flow of a scene, and when something new is needed. If you play this with a group, give everyone practice both as performers and caller.
The version described here involves one caller and two onstage performers, but many other variants are possible – the scene can have a larger group of performers (which means more work for the caller), or performers can be their own callers, freezing the scene themselves and asking for their own new emotions. Some players will get starting emotions at the beginning of the scene.
You’ll find that audiences have a hard time thinking of a list of emotions – Happy, Sad, Confused, Lustful, Fear, Loving… and then they may peter out, making it difficult to perform a longer scene. A solution to this problem is to prepare a long and more varied list of emotions a board and let the audience choose from that.
Once you get the hang of this game, you’ll find you can use the same techniques in many other situations. A scene is floundering? Don’t try to think of something clever. Instead, choose a new emotion, commit to it strongly, and see where it leads you. It will always be more interesting than the cerebral choice.