19 Jun 2012

“The heart of improvisation is transformation” – Viola Spolin

 PlaywritingManipulation of situation and fellow actors;
an unwillingness to believe that a scene will evolve out of the
group playing; not understanding the focus; deliberately using
old action, dialogue, information, and facts (ad-libbing) instead
of spontaneous selection during improvisation; not usable in impeovisational theater. “Stop playwriting!
” – Improvisation for the Theater, 3 rd  Edition Pg. 365
 Transformation: Creation; momentarily breaks through isolation, and actors and audience alike receive (ahhh!) the appearance of a new reality (theater magic); true improvisation.  – Improvisation for the Theater, 3rd Edition Pg. 372.

Above are two key ideas that point to the gulf between Spolin’s view of Improvisation and the common view of so-called Comedy Improv. One major technique in Comedy Improv is calling “Freeze!” to stop the action and change the direction a scene goes in. It is a directorial tool and is used in the game Freeze Tag, a widely used warm-up and performance game.

 A distinction is made in the Spolin tradition between “Freeze” and “No-motion” and in my opinion marks the fork in the road where Improvisation for the Theater and Comedy Improv diverged.


  1. to become fixed or motionless; especially : to become incapable of acting or speaking
  2. to cause to grip tightly or remain in immovable contact
  3. to cause to become fixed, immovable, unavailable, or unalterable

No Motion:

  1. The eye of the storm (stillness amid action)
  2. A state of waiting (not waiting for, but just waiting)
  3. Being ready, connected to the ongoing action in stillness.
  4. A pause between beats
  5. Action at a simmer.

[1]Freeze Tag (exercise) Synonyms: Clap, switch, freeze, tag

Introduction: Everybody up in a line. The first two players start some shared physical activity.

Description: At any time during the two person scene that is taking place someone calls out freeze. The two players immediately stop what they are doing and ‘freeze’ into whatever positions that they were in when the ‘freeze’ was called. The next player in the line immediately tags one of the players that is frozen on stage and assumes their exact position. For the exercise freeze, as opposed to the performance handle freeze, the player must assume the exact physical position of the player they chose to tag out. This ensures that the player was paying attention to the physical detail of the scene as opposed to just the words. They must be listening with their eyes. Once they assume the position they must start a whole new scene that justifies the position that they are in. This scene must be completely different from the preceding one. This means that they must be paying attention to the scene, so as to assure that their new scene is completely different. If the player breaks any of these rules stop the exercise and give a note. It is also a good idea to put a moratorium on those activities that can be called upon which justify any position: fighting, dancing, adhesive accidents, painting models, store mannequins etc.

Freeze Tag is taking turns at labeling and seeing what other players can ‘make out of it’.

Although it is a physical game, and the body is involved, the head or intellect guides the game and the intuitive connection between players is lost.

Freeze Tag is a game of playwriting[2] and ad-lib with a “Yes, And…” imperative. It is a game where funny labels are put to funny poses. It is not a process of improvisation in the sense that the unknown is explored.  It is merely a game of ad-lib where old information is shuffled around to produce clever bits of comedy. It thwarts transformation, one of the fundamental goals of improvisation. Freeze Tag, therefore is the anti-improv game.

 The emphasis on creating improvisational situations from Freeze Tag, asks players to awaken instantly from a ‘freeze’ and label a scene. The player who calls “Freeze!” enters the scene and provides a line that gives a bit of common reference. The other player(s) must adopt the idea and expand upon it. (Yes! And…) and although this seems like improvisation, it is not. It is a way to manipulate and label a situation cleverly or initiate a ‘new’ scene based on a frozen position.

 Freeze shuts us down and cuts us off from the ongoing reality. Try it. Rather than sit still and be in a “state of waiting” for a few moments. FREEZE! Notice the suspension of thought and separation from your current situation. It takes conscious effort to freeze. Energy that is better used in staying connected to what is going on between players.

 When someone labels a scene or position, one does so without taking in the energy and circumstance of the others. A frozen players’ mind shuts down; connection to the other players is lost. Muscles are held tense in the freeze, trying to maintain the last pose. The focus is on holding on until a new label is called out. Each player is isolated from everyone and “in his head” until a new idea for the positions is called out. The rule then becomes “Yes! And…” meaning the mechanical acceptance of the initiator and an effort to add to the suggestion instantly, while awakening from the freeze. Connection between players is barely present and only the quickest minds can adopt and act on the new suggestion in an instant. I have observed that most freeze tags become verbal justifications and jokes. How can it not?

 To label cleverly, or even clumsily, what is suggested to you by a frozen tableau in order to “start” a scene is, at the very least, awkward. It makes dictators of the labeling player and slaves of the others who have to try to make something from the suggestion. It must come from the head of the labeler and therefore is usually a common reference and/or a stereotypical character or situation. The banality of such an interaction is only good for one or two laughs of recognition and never or rarely contains any real surprise.

 There is no give and take, only “Yes! And…” It is trying to follow directions in order to produce some clever bit of stage interaction that might be original. But originality is almost impossible to achieve when we are reduced to selecting from a set of common references to instantly flesh out a scene suggested by the labeler. Invariably caricatures and universal behaviors and responses must be used to keep everyone on the same page. The acting is phony and the references keep the scene trite and uninspired. The fun comes when the next player ‘freezes’ everyone as he or she sees an opportunity to impose yet another situation in an ad-lib fashion.

 True relationship[4] is not what this game is about. This game is a brainstorming session for writers — Flash cards for funny people. I agree it can be entertaining and it has its place as an exercise to polish comedic invention, but it is not complete improvisation.

To freeze a player and impose a situation and verbally label it so others can quickly understand is only playwriting. Even without fully knowing where it may go, players rely on acceptance of the usually verbally initiated script (offer) by a fellow player to move it either in the direction intended or a different direction. In other words, each player is taking turns trying to impose their idea into the interaction rather than heightening and exploring what is going on.

 In the game of Transformation of Relationship players focus on holding on in ‘No-Motion’, waiting for a relationship to emerge between players and then together explore that relationship before looking for another moment to drop back into no-motion and a follow the follower mode in order to discover a new relationship and proceed together to change that reality. In the game of Freeze Tag, players shut each other off and initiate a new scene. Without the connection no-motion creates, urgency is created instead. And that urgency often creates its own energy which stems from panic at not having “a funny idea” to offer. The first one to offer an idea rescue’s the scene from the vacuum created by freeze is a hero and everyone happily accepts and Yes, Ands… the offer.

 Many see improvisational players dealing with this urgency and think “Oh, my god! This is terrifying!” and it is. And I won’t deny it isn’t often funny and entertaining. Audiences marvel at the performers who can accomplish it with seeming ease. It is indeed a skill to think so quickly on your feet. Panic can be handled by quick wits and fast thinking. There is an excitement that comes with this urgency, but to the average person it is very scary to imagine themselves out there fielding offers from other clever players.

 The key difference between Freeze and No-Motion is that one forces you to switch ideas/scenarios quickly where No-Motion asks you to transform what’s going on. When forced to switch, it is merely the adopting of someone else’s idea which comes from that individual’s head  (old information). When transformation[3] happens, both players are contributing simultaneously to the situation and relationship and arrive together at a new situation and or relationship unplanned by both. The goal of improvising is that spontaneous discovery by all who are playing.

How Freeze tag evolved: A theory.

My theory is that when Spolin’s Transformation of Relationship[5] game was observed, it appeared that the players moved from one scene to the next or from one relationship to the next, in a series, spontaneously changing like a kaleidoscope in a follow-the-follower connection. The initiation of a new scene or relationship seemed to be magically appear. The players were coached to stay in constant relation with one another by following the follower and the result was a fantastic collage of scenes and relationships that seem to simply “just occur” simultaneously to the players.

From the outside, the uninitiated observer/director, wanting to recreate that ‘result’, would try to do transformations without the background of being able to get players to follow the follower. Without fully understanding the connection needed between players, the director would then try to maneuver the players into an approximation of the Transformation of Relationship game by calling “Freeze!” “Now change!”.

 I imagine this exercise became freeze tag. The director, wanting to ‘make something happen,’ developed a way for each actor to take turns transforming the relationship. It was not a true transformation, rather a subtle direction and suggestion for a new scene. In order for this to work, new rules had to be imposed to replace the flowing give and take produced by following the follower. Rules like “always accept an offer” and “Don’t block someone’s idea” had to be created. Adding what you can to someone else’s offer in order advance it in new directions. (Yes! and…) must be used. This process is more mechanical and will get something to occur, but with it comes the fact that the magic of transformations is lost. In its place — just some comical associations. Labeling and re-labeling scenes in turn.

 I do not mean to say that Freeze tag is without merit. It produces clever and funny situations and, in the hands of naturally funny people can be very entertaining. But it is not improvising, it is comedy being written and produced on the fly.

 “So what?” You say. “…as long as it’s funny.”

 That attitude and concept is condemning Improvisation to be viewed as a trivial and novel entertainment rather than the important art form and philosophical movement it could be. If we were all able to play from that position of mutuality and trust without trying to be clever, quick and manipulative, we would have a very different world. And the laughter would flow from true spontaneous surprise for player and audience alike. We would then be on a true course for self-discovery. Transformation would be the rule.


Copyright 2003 Gary Schwartz, North Bend, WA


[1] Taken from www.learningimprov.com

[2] Playwriting: Manipulation of situation and fellow actors; an unwillingness to believe that a scene will evolve out of the group playing; not understanding the focus; deliberately using old action, dialogue, information, and facts (ad-libbing) instead of spontaneous selection during improvisation; not usable in improvisational theater; “Stop playwriting!” – Improvisation for the Theater, 3rd Edition Pg. 365

[3] Transformation: Creation; momentarily breaks through isolation, and actors and audience alike receive (ahhh!) the appearance of a new reality (theater magic); improvisation.  – Improvisation for the Theater, 3rd Edition Pg. 372.

[4] Relationship: Contact with fellow players; playing; a mutual involvement with an object; relationship grows out of object-involvement

[5] Improvisation for the Theater, 3rd Edition, Viola Spolin Northwestern University Press Copyright 1999 Paul and William Sills.

2 Responses to Why Freeze Tag is the Anti-Improv Game
  1. Blind Freeze Tag (we play it so that the player who is next up turns away so they can’t watch the scene in progress) is ALWAYS at the top of my toolbox for starting to teach a new group, because it encourages quick scene starts between people who may not know each other very well. It’s extremely useful as a diagnostic tool, because I can tell if a group tends to avoid physical contact, or has a particularly idiolectic set of genres they default to, or if certain players tend to lead by endowing themselves and hoping their partners catch up. If you see a story developing that you like and want to see more of, then don’t call freeze! Playing with sometimes not freezing scenes out has the extra advantage of not allowing students to feel safe in the knowledge that their world only has to make sense for fifteen seconds at a time, and when I’ve let some scenes go longer the overall quality of the work has increased.

    Would I recommend putting (Blind) Freeze Tag in front of an audience? Depends on the show. Sometimes we play it at the start of a night of short-form comedy improv as a way to introduce the players and get in tune with what the audience will respond to, but that’s almost a different game. As an exercise, Freeze Tag teaches immediacy, physical variety, generous endowment, taking care of your partner first, and any number of other useful skills. It seems to me that you’re thinking about the game from the point of view of what it does to the players who are in the frozen scene, rather than what it can give the players who come after.

    • Hi Matt,
      Thanks for the comments.You mention several benefits of Freeze tag: But I think you miss the point.

      You say freezing allows players to feel safe. Yes. But safe in their heads. It gives them time to play-write. It disconnects them from each other and forces them to Yes, and a quick scenario, generated from the first player’s initiating ‘offer’. That offer was cooked up in their heads and quickly yes, anded.
      Generating quick scene starts keeps players play-writing and working solely with ‘informational offers’ and prevents the unknown magic to form in the space between for real relation. (See No-Motion and Transformations at http://www.spolingamesonline.org for examples of what I’m talking about.)

      Current Impro is hooked on quickly forming Story through Yes, and. That is not the purpose of Spolin Improv. Story unfolds out of relation/intuition and interaction. It is what’s left in the wake of that process that is the story – not the goal.

      Freeze tag helps players remain in their heads and trains them to sharpen their story – writing skills which comes from old frames of reference.

      Play-writing and sharing and using information as the means of creating story stops real spontaneity to happen and promotes faster and faster responses from the head. True relationship is not explored, instead only trite, conventional roles (labels) are used to inform your partner.
      i.e. Say doctor, can you get this watermelon out of my navel with that pitchfork?, or ‘Now I’ve created the ultimate robot!’ or “I told you dear, I stop having sex in the first trimester of your pregnancy.” These bits can be yes, anded and you’ll get something funny, but it will always be stereotyped people following stereotyped roles and using (maybe rearranging cleverly) shared old references. – It’s funny, yes, but it is not Improv in the Spolin tradition. It is in fact the opposite.
      It precludes stepping into unknown areas and prevents anything new (direct experience)to happen between players.

      Spolin and ‘Comedy-Improv’ are at cross purposes. Both are fun to watch, but comedy Improv is not transformational it is traditional.

      Thank you for writing. Let’s keep this dialogue going.
      Gary Schwartz

Comments are closed.