Friday, August 29, 2014

Improvise Poetry! Find Your Voice with David Shepherd

For about ten years, starting in the mid-nineties, David Shepherd explored improvising poetry with various diverse groups. As is his nature, David encouraged their input, which led to an eclectic collection of games. In some instances, the games were used in a competitive format, similar to the Improv Olympics. Others, as a form of street theatre, where the audience became participants.

This is a rough outline written by David in 2003 for a proposed improvised poetry handbook. I've tried to reconstruct it as accurately as possible to represent David's objectives. It includes a series of games just begging to be used by any group who sees fit.


By “improvised poetry” we don’t mean poetry that’s written solo in the middle of the night.  We don’t mean pages & pages read, word for word, to as many people as the poet can get to sit and listen.

We mean poetry that starts with you, the spectator.  You tell us what theme is on your mind.  Or you give us a color, a location, a famous character, a time, the title for an imaginary poem, a smell, a political situation.  And then we fire feelings and pictures back to you.  Sometimes there are two or three or four of us making up what becomes your poem. 

Every group that’s done our Poetry Program has added something to it. Ten years ago we started in Washington Square, New York City-- surrounded by bongo players and drug pushers, undercover cops and NYU students, strong men and comedians.  All of a sudden the people listening  said, “Hey, I want to try that.” They walked onto our stage, and we gave them a game to play.

David Shepherd getting people to improvise poetry on the spot in Washington Square Park.

They won’t make it into the Oxford Book of Verse, but their poems were alive, warm, tingly.  Their words came out of the group, the moment.  We were amazed: there were no clunkers.  Through group creativity New Yorkers were finding their Voice.  And  finding your Voice is part of what  life is  all about.

In  Chicago: I found a group at Urbis Orbus cafe. They said, “Let’s compete—Men and Women, or South Siders/North Siders.”  And they did—weekly.  The teams played tooth and nail. It was fun.  Nobody’s feelings got hurt. You can play Adults against Teenagers,  or “O” Positives  against “O” Negatives. The names don’t matter.  Do whatever works--  so two groups take one suggestion from the audience and shape it into 2 poems.

Then I went to Toronto, where I worked with an Alternative High School.  Well, I got a dozen very alternative poets.  They’d invented a game called “Out the Window.”  You put together a giant panorama of sights & smells, and you call it forth using the most sensual vocabulary you can find.  You imagine it’s so close to you you can touch it: a surreal poetry game.

I went to Amagansett, Long Island, where our team traveled from home to home weekly.  That was fun because you get to see many different families, dogs, cats, gerbils, soups, beers.  Our team played Main Beach.  We’d give out a hundred flyers to promote the show; then at sunset play in front of a row of benches.  One of our players was doing a poem blindfold about Pat Nixon, and he walked off a sand dune.  We had to catch him.  The man who’d given us the Nixon suggestion was amazed at what we did with it.

I learned Improv Poetry is not about rhymes.  It’s not about elegant relationships or remote abstraction.  It’s not about publishing your rhymed memories.   It’s finding your Voice, stating your reactions strongly about everyday events and everyday behavior.  It’s a butter & eggs kind of poetry that any one can master and call their own.

HERE ARE SOME EXERCISES to get you ready to improvise

Close your eyes, take a deep breath and describe a series of things you see in your mind’s eye—one word each: skull, violet, brush, star, dingy, boxer…. Don’t hurry.

Do the same thing only describe each object in 2 words, eg “red banana.”.

Do the same thing only describe each thing in 3 words: “ deep, greasy pit.”.

Make up a minute’s worth of nonsense words that are light and fast, eg: “When I go a little way, I whistle a lot and keep my eye high to the sky…”

Improvise a minute’s worth of nonsense words that are heavy, like, “might makes right and strong’s gone down into crypts where monsters make mad songs.”

Improvise gibberish that tells a story, and switch from English to gibberish and back every 10 seconds.

Take a bland topic like “Toothpaste.”  Express yourself on it--finding your Voice in your emphasis, your rhythm, your feeling and your point of view. 
Sometimes a game or match between two teams is judged.

If you’re asked to judge:

before each improvisation, read the rules. They appear like this:

          Name of GAME for “X” number of players:___

          TIME LIMIT:___    NEEDED: first and last line (for instance).

What to watch for:

Body Movement:
Is the player’s body unlocked  (hands  not  in pockets, not clasped behind back)? Are the pelvis and neck loose?  Does the player use the body to express the rhythm & feeling of the poem? Give 0-1 points.

Does the player express the theme not through the head but through a feeling? And when that feeling is dropped, does the player pick up another feeling? Do you believe the feelings? Give 0-3 points.

Is the rhythm repetitious, lackluster and halting, or is it strong, variable and expressive? Give 0-3 points. 

Do the words evoke things you can see, smell, hear, touch, taste?  Give 0-3 points.

To the MC: you introduce the players, explain the games, and choose the judges. You call a player “out” (for instance when someone uses 4 words in the game “Three Words”). Encourage audience members to improvise with players. Make much of anyone’s success in finding their voice.

Blind Poet for 1 player plus guide.

NEEDED from the audience: a hero or heroine & a matching color.  Cover the player’s eyes with a scarf.  Spectators shout, “Bring on the blind poet!”  Guide the player on, then douse the player with the “oil of inspiration” and ignite the oil as a “muse of fire.” As the “flaming” player writhes and shakes, spectators shout out 3 historical heroes (eg: Elvis, Superman, de Gaulle). When the poet picks one, they suggest a color. The player improvises a story in epic style, weaving in the suggested color. TIME LIMIT: 90 seconds.  


And then went down to the ship,

Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and

We set up mast and sail on that swart ship

Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also,

Heavy with weeping, so winds from sternward

Bore us out onward with bellying canvas

Circe’s this craft, the trim-coiffed goddess. 

HOMER  Translated by Ezra Pound

Q: Why is this game a favorite?

   No rhymes have to be forced into the flow of images.

   The stories are familiar (Britney Spears, Bill Clinton, Bob Dylan).

   Without seeing, the voice takes on a new power and rhythm

   A “fire” jolts the player.

Panting and screaming, the “blind” poet slips smoothly into epic poetry.

Blind Poet.

ON HOLD for two players. 60-second limit.

Get a topic for the Event from suggestions such as travel, money, health, sex, electronics, real estate, etc.  Suppose you’re given “travel.”  The game might start like this:

Player 1: Ting a ling a ling.
Player 2:  WAKING UP:  Hello. Who is this?
Player 1:  Sorry!  It is late, but you’ve just won a wonderful free five day trip to the Caribbean… Another call’s coming in.  May I put you on hold?
Player 2: Goes back to sleep and fantasizes about the trip.  The dream is the poem.

Possible suggestions:  an accident in the family, a lotto win, a request to interview the sleeper, an emergency medical report, a big deal, the reading of a will.

Text vs. Improv for 1 writer, 1 poem on paper, 1 improviser.

Writer goes first.  Read a poem of a dozen lines, or recite it from memory.  Improviser stands close, shaping the poem in his/her hands. Then the improviser expresses the same content in the same length of time. The audience votes on which is the better poem.

Here’s the point:
Sometimes written poetry shines (I myself like Villon, Brecht, Blake, Thomas, Molina). 

And sometimes improvisation shines.  Gary Goodrow reminds us of the minstrel who won a night’s lodging by improvising on the virtues of his lord--in a poem more challenging by far than if he just shut up and froze to death in the snow.

2-Bits for 2 players.

Spectators are told, “Anyone with 25 cents can play. Anyone can win.”
2 players ante up a quarter each.  Others who want to play throw in their quarters, too.  Ask the audience for a topic. The first two players do a 60-second improv on the topic. (at 50 seconds give a warning.).   Spectators chosen to judge score players on bodily movement, verbal rhythm, feeling and imagery.

Before the quarters get picked up, invite others to play the winner.   They match the bet (which is now about $1) as you take a topic for round #2.  As the game goes on through Round #3 and #4, the kitty increases.  When there are no more new players, the last winner takes the entire kitty.

Two Bits.

Sound Motion for 2 players


NEEDED:  a literary style and a time of day/weather.  90 second time limit.  For instance, Emily Dickinson on a cold morning.
Q: What’s the point?
A: This is usually done not as a burlesque but as an exploration of how word and motion can merge.

Tight/Loose/Refrain for 3 players.and percussion. By “tight” we mean poetry with a fixed line length that rhymes like John Donne.   By “loose” we mean poetry without fixed lines and rimes like Alan Ginsberg. 


NEEDED: 3 players.  Together  they  show how tight they can get in body and voice. Ask the audience to choose the tightest to play TIGHT.  Then they all play loose--with no tension at all. A second player is chosen to play LOOSE.  The third player is REFRAIN, who  drops a line after TIGHT and LOOSE play.  The audience chooses the theme and the refrain, which is usually bland, eg: “And that’s the way it was in Parqua Flats.”

The game runs like this: TIGHT, LOOSE, REFRAIN. TIGHT, LOOSE, REFRAIN. TIGHT, LOOSE, REFRAIN. Time unit: 90 seconds.

Urge players to make choppy or flowing movements, so one player’s fists, for instance, punch out words, while the other’s arms draw  forth flabby sentences non-stop.  This is a good game to initiate volunteers from the public.  Ask them to audition, showing how tight or loose they can be.  Auditions for any game lengthen your show, raise quality and involve more of the public. 


Rhymed Gibberish for 1 player and a host to introduce him or her.


Bring on and introduce a famous foreign poet who speaks no English.  Ask the audience to request their favorite poem written by this poet. Translate their request into the language of the poet, who then “reads” or recites the poem. Unlike our other poetry games, which discourage rhyme, this gibberish must rhyme. TIME LIMIT: 90 seconds. Ask the audience to count the rhymes.

NB: The hallmark of written poetry, which takes hours to write and revise, is rhyme.
In improv poetry we don’t encourage rhyme because it usually distorts the flow of feeling.

Q: Who counts the number of times the player rhymes? 
A: Spectators.  Gibberish is not nonsense.  It’s a coherent language that only the speaker understands. Every gibberish word stands for something in the mind of the poet, eg:

            “Zarooska patievo kromti puss” means to me
            “Speedily into the jaws of death.” If the gibberish
            word “zarooska” appears again, it means“ speedily” to me again..

Chorus Chorus for the whole team plus volunteers. 

Against a guitar or a drum, the Leader sings a chorus while players and spectators  improvise new verses.   NEEDED: a chorus of 4 lines, eg:

Glory, glory hallelujah
Glory, glory hallelujah
Glory, glory hallelujah
His truth is marching on.

The Leader points to the player who will improvise the next four lines.  TIME LIMIT depends on how many are playing.
Primal Squares for 2-4 players.

NEEDED: a basic relationship for the players and 3 primal emotions, eg: father/son & hate-fear-pride.  With chalk or tape, mark the playing area off into 4 squares.  Label 3 of them with a primal emotion;   the forth is used any way the player wants.  Pick a player or spectator to do the claps that will move the game forward.

PRIMAL EMOTIONS include pride, hate, fear, anger, love, boredom, lust, disgust, envy, shame, grief, happiness. When they hear a clap, players jump from one square to another. They express themselves in the emotion of the square they land on, giving and taking from each other. TIME LIMIT:  90 seconds.  Use the biggest space you can find--a lawn, basketball court, football field.  Running from space to space deepens the emotions of players.

Three Words for 3- 6 players.


 Choose a taste or behavior.  Players are not allowed to talk about it at the same time. If 2 of them do, they are both “out,”  and you replace them.  A player who uses more or less than 3 words at a time is out.”   TIME LIMIT: 60 seconds.

Out the Window I See:   for 1-4 players.
NEEDED: one emotion and one smell.  TIME LIMIT:  90 seconds. 

With the emotion in mind, the player looks up like an X-ray beam through a window or wall, then closes his/her eyes and imagines what exists on the other side.   Use colorful detail.  When subsequent improvisers play, they don’t start a new panorama;  each adds onto the picture that already exists.    . 

The panorama created by the game is twisted, melted, smoky, putrefied, slick, changeable—depending on where the imagination of up to 4 poets go.     
Dada for any number of  players.

During a blackout players can move and talk. When the lights go on, they freeze in a tableau.  Locations are suggested by the audience.

Players choose a location to use, then fill that location with as much action, sound effects, talk and song as possible.

NEEDED: with a location a political or social theme like “S.U.V.s, sex education, pollution.”  TIME LIMIT: 90 seconds.  DADA cannot be played outdoors because there’s no way to control light.

Dada: played indoors.  Before you play, make sure you can black out. A player who’s on lights turns them off for about 7 seconds, on for about 2. The absurd nature of Dada can be reinforced by noise, music, dancers, etc. 

Blank (by Phyllis Yampolsky)

1) Solo:  Player enters arena, stands quietly (eyes open or closed), counts to ten and begins to speak from whatever point of consciousness s/he finds him or herself in at that moment.

2) Duo:  Same as above, with 2 people.  Before entering the playing arena, they will chose, by one inconsequential system or another, who will go first.  Once the speaking begins, each player contributes 1,2 or 3 lines by responding to the sense, sound, cadence or physical motion of the other.

As usual players get points for rhythm, feeling and visual creativity.

YES/NO QUESTION: for two players; time limit 2 minutes

NEEDED: the biggest question the audience can come up with—a question like “Is our country messed up?” which can be answered “yes” or “no.”  With a wave of your hand,  get all spectators to shout the question in unison.  Then one player answers affirmatively, one negatvely.  Get the spectators to roar again.  Another “yes” answer; then  a “no” answer.  A roar.  Negative/positive--and a final roar.   Give players points for the strength of their convictions, their verbal detail and their feeling.

To Find your Voice by Improvising Poetry: Stay with It for 7 Weeks.

(1) Learn the games.  Take home the ones you can do alone.    Do the exercises, too.

(2) Next time you play, find which game is your favorite, and do it over and over.

(3)  Next time: find your voice in the way you breathe and move. At home do exercises.

(4)  Are you ready to form a team?  If so choose a costume, wig, prop.  Play characters?

(5)  Add sound effects and percussion to monologs, improvised songs, rap.

(6)  Visit the place where you’re going to play and tell people you’ll need their ideas.

(7) Start improvising with the audience, then move to the stage and do your show.

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games.  Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.

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