Word association in a circle that comes back to the first word
Pam calls it “skating the razor’s edge of non-doing,” going for “that eye-brightening sensation of recognition and natural association, which is quite different [from] an external, exerted force.”
From Ted's blog
This word association exercise claims the top spot in my friend and colleague Pam Victor’s pantheon of go-tos. It has a Zen-like meditative quality and breeds so much of what makes improv great: relaxed readiness, simple contribution, and an ongoing faith in the game’s unfolding. In some ways, it’s similar to the game Convergence, but it’s a bit more subdued and naturally egalitarian.
With the group in a circle, get a suggestion for a noun. When someone responds (let’s say with “camera”), the whole group repeats that word in unison: “Camera!” The person to the left or right of the originator then generates a second word based on the first, like “snapshot.” The next person in the circle word-associates with that new word (with “snapshot,” not “camera”), doing their best to let go of any echo from the original word. Here, one could generate “moment” and that would clearly be free from “camera.” “Instagram” might still have some trace of it. And that’s fine. “GoPro,” on the other hand, would still be sticking to “camera” rather than responding to “snapshot.” One way to help is to prompt a person to silently start with “When I hear ‘snapshot’ it makes me think of…”
Eventually, the goal—though it remains loosely held—is to circle back around to the original word. It can take a while but it will happen. Ideally, the momentum becomes obvious enough that the whole group could say the original word in unison. Once the word association returns back to “camera,” start a second round with that same word and then, eventually, a third.
Help folks see that the word association need not be clever, provocative, or funny. It’s simply what comes logically and naturally to mind in response to the immediately previous word.
Though there are no ‘wrong’ answers to offer, less-right answers might include a created joke, a non-sequitur, or a forced lurch toward the original word. Go for the natural extension of the word that came before.
See if you can model the unhurried, effortless discovery that the game’s going for and coach folks away from lurching too quickly toward the first word. Admittedly, there’s a paradox here: you’re returning to the origin without trying to return to the origin. Pam calls it “skating the razor’s edge of non-doing,” going for “that eye-brightening sensation of recognition and natural association, which is quite different [from] an external, exerted force.” That sounds right to me.
Encourage participants to notice if they start judging their own (or others’) words as “good” or “bad.” Oftentimes, the words that seem like missteps or misdirections can take the game on a delightful side jaunt or can get you back home in an unpredictable way. It’s all good. Or, more accurately, it’s all what it is.