The Jeffrey Game
I created this game after a third-grade student, Jeffrey, suggested the idea to me. It is basically a mirroring game. If carefully taught and supervised it can help students learn to isolate movements and to really look. Jeffrey's class enjoyed it, and I hope yours will too. Although the game was originally designed for Third Grade, I think it works better with older, or even adult actors as an improvisation game.
Some work is necessary before the game can be played. I do most of this work anyway with my Drama classes, but if you don't you will need to prepare your students for the game. Students must practice moving in a very self-aware way. They need to be able to analyze their movement so that they know precisely what they are doing. The work of Rudolf Laban is helpful here, but not necessary. A basic concept I use is that a movement--any movement--can be changed in a number of specific ways. Among them:
Change the size of the movement. A movement can be made wider or narrower, higher or lower, deeper or shallower. (I demonstrate these three concepts by walking--and having the students walk. One can make the walk wider or narrower by widening or narrowing the stance and swinging the arms further away or closer to the body. One can make the walk higher or lower by walking on tiptoe or slouching. One can make the walk deeper by taking larger steps or swinging the arms further forward and back.)
Change the time of the movement. A movement can be made slower or faster. (When my students are sophisticated enough to grasp it, I include time in the size category--as the "fourth" dimension.)
Change the weight of the movement. This is pure Laban. I demonstrate by walking how a movement can be light or heavy. (An angry schoolteacher may walk heavily; a ballet dancer may move lightly.)
Change the direction of the movement. Also from Laban. A movement can be direct--moving to a specific point without veering off the path--or indirect--wandering aimlessly.
Change the tension of the movement. The muscles can be loose and relaxed or tense and constricted.
Change the focus of the movement. I made up this category, but it is easy for my students to understand and really helps with emotional work. Focus is basically the direction of the gaze, with usually a corresponding curve of the body. (Think of the difference between a downcast person walking about staring at the floor and a proud, happy person striding about with his chin up.)
Change the shape of the movement (or change the kind of movement). This is the most basic and the most grand kind of change. It consists of actually changing to a different movement--a walk become a run or a crawl; reaching out a hand becomes reaching out a foot--or completely changing a component part of the movement--stop swinging arms while walking; reach out with a closed fist rather than with an open hand. This is really pretty easy for children to understand, despite its complexity. It is important to remember, however, to focus on one movement at a time.
(Much of the above is taken from another lesson, "Emotion Walk.")
Once I have explained and demonstrated, with volunteers, these ways of changing a movement, I have the students walk about in the space, while I take them through each element in turn. "Keep everything else the same, but change the tension of your muscles." "Keep everything else the same, but change the speed of the movement." I continue this work until I believe the students have grasped the idea of isolating and changing elements one at a time.
Usually I do a whole period of work on this, ending with a discussion of the way that changing one element can change the whole feeling or emotion of the movement. For a more detailed description of this work, see "Emotion Walk." If the goal is just to play the Jeffrey Game, it need not take a whole period.
Play the Game
To begin with, one student (or the teacher, if this will eliminate conflict) invents a short movement sequence. For example, he might walk four steps, bend and tie his shoe. The whole class practices this movement sequence until they can imitate it pretty accurately.
Once the movement is familiar, someone volunteers to change it. That student must repeat the movement exactly, but making one change. He may only change one element of one movement. (In our example, he might walk faster, or he might bend deeper, or he might massage his ankle instead of tying his shoe.)
This continues, with each new volunteer making exactly one change. (In our example, eventually someone will change the bend. If that happens before the shoe-tying has been changed, clearly he will not be able to tie his shoe if he hasn't bent. But he can still pretend to tie it, thus not actually changing the movement of tying.)
The movement sequence will grow less and less like the original. The teacher must side-coach to keep the sequence clearly defined, and to keep each student to one change. This is not a guessing game--it is fine (and usually a good idea) for the teacher to say out loud what each change is. As the game progresses, particularly if the group is pretty sophisticated, the sequence will evolve into something else with a clear meaning. (For example, after ten or fifteen changes the example sequence might have become crawling four steps, picking up a toy, and putting it in the mouth.)
Finally, the hard part.
(For advanced groups only.)
See how few people it takes to change the movement back to the original sequence. Side coach carefully to avoid "cheating" by changing more than one element at a time. This is a real exercise in teamwork, because each person's change depends on the previous change. With older groups, try it with the whole group consulting on each change, so that the transformation can be accomplished in the fewest steps.
Try it with more than one person moving at a time. This can be part of a contact improv exercise, for example.