Remembered objects are used to 'port' between memories
See more in memories
from Ted's blog
This has become one of my favorite improv exercises, a great way to develop confidence in one’s access to images and ideas, to sharpen eye for detailed locations, and to connect players with each other. It’s also a slower, quieter game that can be used as a healthy balance to more vocal, upbeat experiences.
The game’s name traces back to the Harry Potter books where a portkey was an everyday object that, when touched by wizards, would transport them away from the Muggle world off to Hogwarts or some other location in the wizarding world.
Sitting in a circle, get a suggestion for an everyday object. Iron. Wristwatch. Bowling ball. Dining room table. Sneaker. Or something, anything, like that. That object will likely trigger a memory for someone. That person then starts the round by repeating the name of the object with “…takes me to…” and describes the location from their past where they see that object. For example, I might say “Iron takes me to the dining room of our apartment growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, where the ironing board opened up from a little mini-closet in the wall.”
Once that person has identified the location, they describe it as well as they can in detail: “We had a circular butcher block table with four metal legs that fanned out from a stainless steel center post. The wall-to-wall carpet was an olive/lime color, a tight weave that stayed close to the floor. There were no doors in the room but three passageways, one that went into the narrow kitchen, one that went to the bathroom and bedrooms, and one that opened up to the hardwood floor living room. Two second-floor windows faced across to the apartment building next door.” That person closes that turn by taking one of the objects they identified in their location and passing that along to the next person. Here, I might say “I give ‘carpet’ to Dominic.” And then Dominic would say “Carpet takes me to…” and begin the process again.
The purist version of the game sticks only to a strict description of the physical locale. Look around. What’s in that space? What colors, textures, sizes and elements? Who’s there? Adhering to this intention really develops the ability to “see” locations on stage and helps improvisors trust their own sense of what might be around them at any moment. It also takes less time.
A second version welcomes in a bit of story with each location. In the example above, I might have added, “Around the corner in the kitchen was where we one time accidentally left a chicken cooking in the oven when we went away and when we came back home later that afternoon, the whole place had been filled with smoke–the burnt chicken smell made us cough for weeks.” This version weaves a group together well as you create mini-snapshots, moments of meaning you wouldn’t otherwise think to share with each other.
Have the object take you to an actual memory, not something made up.
Remind folks they don’t need to work hard or wait for an “interesting” location or “clever” story. There’s a profundity in the mundane that emerges. We learn a great deal about each other from the neutral snapshots we rarely ever share.
It doesn’t matter if the object itself shows up in the new location, only that it takes you to that specific location. When someone mentioned “iron,” most might think of a steam iron for removing wrinkles. But the word could have taken me to railroad tracks behind my house or to a football field where my brother and I mimicked the Pittsburgh Steelers Iron Curtain defense of the mid 1970’s.
If you use the story version, keep an eye out for the tendency for the stories to keep elongating. That can take more time than you’d like and get away from a more pleasurable rhythm of using the portkey effect. One way to encourage shorter stories is to remind folks that they don’t have to provide background or explanation. They can concentrate on describing the location.
With the second version, you can also use the exercise as way to explore components of effective story-telling.
Which stories were listeners most moved by? Which scenes held the group’s attention? What components do the more riveting stories share in common? And so on. If you use this approach, do take care so that it doesn’t become a competitive “who told the best story?” evaluation—that can seal off the good connections the game has just generated. (Thanks to Lainey Forman for this use of Portkey!)