The game is Mind Meld.
“Players, your suggestion is ‘cardigan.’”
The objective is to say the same word at the same time as your partner.
Dee Dee and Sean lock eyes, stone-faced. The rest of us begin to chant.
Sean and Dee Dee yell their answers at the same time.
Sean turns to face Olivia. The previous two words are repeated. The players want to say the same word based off the previous two, “button” and “tie.” The group chants.
The seven of us stand in a tight circle. We’re trying to get on the same wavelength. We’re trying to warm up the group mind. We’re tense.
The words are repeated. It’s Olivia and Michael.
“You repeated ‘suit.’”
This isn’t our whole group. Nate has rehearsal, Paul has an exam and Brandon has a funeral.
Now, Michael and Scott.
The group is buzzing in anticipation. Scott faces Noah.
We don’t want similar, we want the same.
Now it’s me and Noah.
He turns toward me. I step almost too close to him. I hear the others chanting. I have no idea what I’m going to say.
What else is on a suit that hasn’t been said?
This one’s a stretch…
It’s the only logical choice…
The group is exasperated.
“‘Cummerbund’? Where’d that come from?”
I roll my eyes. It made sense to me.
I brush it off. It’s me and Dee Dee. This time, my word is waiting on the tip of my tongue. It’s another stretch, but it can’t be worse than “cummerbund.”
Sketched Out is a 10-person improvisational comedy team at Miami University. We practice for two hours twice a week, and hold two weekend shows once a month.
All improv is performed based on a one-word suggestion that improvisers are given seconds before their scene begins. There are no scripts and no time to plan. Everything happens on the spot.
Our team performs both short-form and long-form improv. In the comedy world, short-form improv is quick three- to five-minute games that focus on quick wit and gimmicky bits.
Long-form improv consists of less structured 15- to 20-minute scenes. This looseness requires actors to double down on relationships and characters they’re playing.
Sketched Out only practiced short-form improv until Olivia Prosser took over as the team’s artistic director in fall 2016.
Olivia, a junior, has been improvising for five years, and has completed all six levels of training offered by the Improv Shop in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. The sixth and newest level of training focuses on the practice of group mind.
That experience inspired Olivia to commit Sketched Out to practicing long-form improv. Instead of throwing us into 15-minute scenes in the first rehearsal, Olivia wanted to slowly ease the team into unfamiliar territory. She decided to start by teaching the team about group mind.
Group mind is a concept in improv that was first taught by Del Close, founder of the famous iO Theater in Chicago, Illinois. Considered by many to be the father of long-form improv, Close was a cokehead, a pagan and a brilliant improv teacher.
To teach us his method, Olivia started by having us read a letter written by Liz Allen, a professional improviser who studied with Close. Allen helped to articulate Close’s concept of group mind.
“[Close] said all of us are connected by an invisible string located at the base of each of our skulls. This string links our brains and also our hearts,” wrote Allen. “Del believed this invisible cord enables us to anticipate each other’s moves onstage and to say the same thing at the same time.”
At first, it seems like a far-out idea that could only come from, well, a coked-out pagan. Olivia, however, explains it in a more digestible manner.
“Group mind is kind of this unspoken language,” she said. “It’s not just in improv; it’s all over. It’s kind of serendipitous. It’s like when you and your friend say the same word at the same time. In improv, it’s making sure that everyone is on the same page without saying anything.”
When an improviser first starts to practice group mind, it can be uncomfortable. It requires a person to be vulnerable and open-minded. You feel like everything you do is wrong, even though there is no right answer.
“Whenever I was in the [group mind] class, I would think, ‘If anyone walked in right now, they will think we are batshit crazy,” said Olivia.
“Focus on each other, make sure to be going at the same speed, heighten what you see. We will decide when we are done together.” Olivia’s wide eyes scan the group of nine improvisers staring back at her. We are standing in a tight circle, shoulder to shoulder, with a quiet intensity about us.
“Players, are you ready?”
No one jumps to make the first move; no one wants to break the school-of-fish mentality. There is a quiet moment, then someone yawns.
Instantly, everyone is yawning, stretching the sleep out of their limbs, careful not to take their eyes off the group.
Someone smacks their lips; the group picks up on the sound.
Almost like a choreographed song, each person is smacking their lips, yawning and stretching. No two people are doing the same thing at the same time, and yet the group is perfectly in sync.
A finger jabs in the air, lips smacking at the same time.
Together, we shift.
The circle of exhaustion dissolves as people step away, smacking their lips and jabbing fingers into the air. The raised stage is consumed by bubbles that only we can see. We all walk at the same pace, methodically popping the bubbles around us, never taking our attention fully off each other.
Slowly, the chorus of lip-smacks become higher-pitched, and sound begins to come from the vocal cords rather than the lips.
We tuck our jabbing fingers into the crooks between our ribs and hips, or up inside our armpits. Necks extend rapidly, knees bend, improvisers amble around clucking loudly — a seamless transition from a room full of bubbles to a stage full of chickens.
Each of us is working as an individual; there is no direct interaction between any two people, no words spoken. Without any communication, our minds and bodies work together as one cohesive unit, as if each thought is coming from an unseen shared space.
The clucking slows; the chickens return to a loose circle and become humans again. In the same moment, each of us drops our arms, stops moving and stands upright.
Finally, we all speak. The phrase is spoken at the same time, in the same pitch, as if coming from one voice.
“We are done.”
The group mind of a team depends on that team’s dynamic. Each individual brings their own style and ability to the team, and the other members must help that individual to grow and thrive in every scene they do.
“Group mind is exercises, but it’s also hanging out and understanding one another, and getting to a level where you know people’s strengths and weaknesses,” said Olivia.
Even though arriving at group mind is never easy, knowing your improvisational partner well can help. So while Olivia can’t formally implement rules stating that all members of Sketched Out must spend one-on-one time together, she does encourage us to get to know each other outside of practice.
But that dynamic can be taken too far. Olivia also has a “no dating team members” policy. She doesn’t want want a romantic relationship to affect how two players perform in scenes together, and worries about what a breakup would do to the team dynamic.
Fortunately, she has never had to formally enforce that rule.
Olivia is also deliberate about selecting who is playing in a scene together. She aims for each improviser to have equal time on stage, equal opportunities to play with each other and a chance to show off their strengths.
“When I’m going about pairing people up, it’s like, ‘Oh, I know these people haven’t played together,’ or sometimes it’s more like, ‘OK, I know this person is really high-energy and does a lot of physical stuff, I know this [other] person’s really good at grounding scenes,’” Olivia said. “I hope that they can match up and find a happy medium.”
No matter how perfect the pairing, group mind is not something improvisers can bring to their scenes after one practice session. Members of the team must become cognizant of the team’s group mind and learn how to see it in every new scene. They must learn to pick up on subtle cues from their partner and steer the scene together.
Achieving group mind is never a guarantee. It is something that needs to be nurtured, discovered, lost and found again.
Emma strikes a minor chord on the keyboard. The dramatic sound echoes over the rows of green seats that fill Pearson 128, the large lecture hall where we practice and perform. Noah and Dee Dee are onstage; the rest of our team is scattered in seats watching the practice.
Noah’s expression becomes anxious to match the music. He conjures an invisible object. Dee Dee stands behind his right shoulder. By the weight and the shape of it, she knows he has produced a pencil.
Emma pounds another chord.
Noah holds his pencil higher, eyes fixed where he imagines the point to be. He begins to sings softly to his pencil.
He turns to Dee Dee, communicating through body language and emotional subtext. Dee Dee understands his gibberish and sings back to him in a made-up language all her own.
Noah picks an object off the ground and sets it on a table visible only to him and Dee Dee. The object has a square shape and is heavier than his pencil. Noah suddenly looks sad; Emma slows the music.
The tip of his pencil is broken.
Noah looks to Dee Dee. She consoles him in a bright, melodic voice and gestures toward the object he placed on the table — a sharpener. He takes her suggestion and sharpens his pencil. The problem is solved; there is a lull in the music.
Then I decide to intervene.
I am sitting four rows back from the raised stage and rise slowly from my seat. I start to sing, my voice coming as a shock to the two players. I begin to make my way toward the raised stage.
Noah and Dee Dee break into a tizzy, singing quick, sharp tones. They frantically prepare the room they are in for my arrival; they believe I am someone of importance. I stick my nose in the air and hold my shoulders back, my steps becoming long strides.
When I enter the imaginary room, they flail about in dramatic bows. I move past them, toward the table with the sharpener. I hold the sharpener high above my head. Noah and Dee Dee are fixated on it. Their faces drop as I let my arm fall and release my grip.
We can almost hear the sharpener shatter.
The music swells. I stomp on the broken bits beneath me and pull an object from behind my back. Noah and Dee Dee stare at my hand, trying to determine what I am offering them.
They aren’t getting it.
I stop singing, move my thumb to the top of the object and press down, making a loud clicking noise with my mouth. Their eyes light up.
Noah rushes toward me. He is singing angrily and gesturing toward the broken sharpener on the ground and the pen in my hand. Dee Dee’s behind him, a look of despair in her eyes.
We know how each other is feeling, we know what each other is thinking. I crush the broken sharpener further beneath my foot. The music begins to die out and by looking at Dee Dee, I can tell we have our eyes on the same ending. We are both singing softly, envisioning an ending with the three of us at odds. Simple, but it’s where we seem to be headed.
The problem with group mind is that it’s elusive.
Noah’s eyes shift around wildly and he looks panicked. He is on a different page; he isn’t seeing the ending Dee Dee and I see. In a split-second decision, he goes for a big finish.
He pulls the pen from my hand and plunges it into his stomach.
Emma picks up the music to match the resurgence of action. Noah falls to the ground. Dee Dee and I kneel by him, genuinely confused. We have veered away from a simple ending; the scene has gone off the rails.
“I thought the scene was done,” Noah whispers. “I’m sorry.”
Our characters have left the stage, leaving three improvisers looking blankly at each other, waiting for the music to end. The whistle blows, giving a time of death to a long-dead scene.
Sometimes scenes bomb. No matter how often improvisers practice, and how well they know each other, they will at some point in their career find themselves in a scene far too broken to repair. The only choice is to stick with it and hope that a teammate will show mercy by ending the scene early.
Finding group mind does not mean there will be a 15-minute marathon of improvisational genius. It’s more often found in quick bursts of togetherness that make a player pause and think, “Whoa.”
Olivia swipes across the stage, a sign to the other team members that she is starting a new scene. She pulls two chairs out onto the stage and lies across them, pretending to sleep. Dee Dee creeps toward Olivia from one side of the stage, and on the other, Michael stands pointing an imaginary sniper rifle at Dee Dee. The rest of Sketched Out is pushed to the sides watching the scene unfold.
It’s the final scene of our final show of the semester. Our team is clad in holiday apparel, ranging from the simple touch of Paul’s Santa hat to the eyesore that is Brandon’s royal blue snowflake-patterned suit. We have a decent-sized crowd, considering the cold and the fact that finals are around the corner.
We are wrapping up a long-form scene called “Double Barrel Shotgun.” It starts with two “cars” traveling to the same destination. We get the destination from an audience member, and each car gets five players and five minutes to determine who is in the car, what their characters are, what their relationship is to each other and why they are traveling to the suggested destination. We then do a 10-minute montage of mini-scenes based on what we saw in the first two cars.
Our suggestion is the North Pole. During our montage, Michael’s character attempts to assassinate Santa. After the attempt is foiled, Santa, played by Nate, hires Michael’s character to assassinate the Tooth Fairy, played by Dee Dee. In the final scene, the Tooth Fairy tries to retrieve a tooth from a sleeping child, played by Olivia, while avoiding an attempt on her life.
But as I watch, I think of an idea for a rather dark ending. It would be funny if Michael accidentally shot the sleeping child instead of the Tooth Fairy.
The only problem is that I am not in the scene and have no way of directly communicating this idea with the players onstage. The scene already has three people in it, and I don’t want to overcrowd it, so I decide to simply watch the scene play out.
Dee Dee, as the Tooth Fairy, has retrieved the tooth from underneath Olivia’s head and is beginning to walk away. We hear Nate-as-Santa encourage his hitman, Michael, to take his shot before it’s too late. Michael agrees, and begins to count down.
Dee Dee dawdles at the foot of Olivia’s bed, making herself an easy target for Michael’s character. She is knowingly jeopardizing the fate of her own character to follow what the group mind is telling her.
Olivia begins to toss and turn in her bed. She’s waking up.
Just as Michael pulls his imaginary trigger, Olivia sits up in the bed.
Michael makes a blast sound with his mouth, and both Olivia and Dee Dee dramatically fall to the ground. Olivia’s plan was to be the only one who was shot, and with Dee Dee on the ground, it’s confusing as to how both of them ended up getting hit.
Seeing this, Scott immediately yells the justification from offstage.
“Oh my gosh, the bullet went straight through the kid and hit the Tooth Fairy!”
I feel the goosebumps rise on my arms. All of our thoughts seem to be coming from the same space.
The audience is roaring, to the point where we almost can’t hear Brandon blow the final whistle to end the scene.