One of my favorite games for cracking open your creative process is called, “What are you doing?” The basic premise is simple:
1. With two players, start with a suggestion for a physical activity (e.g., washing a car)
2. Player 1 starts to mime this activity.
3. Player 2 asks, “What are you doing?”
4. Player 1 continues the activity but names another activity, one that is unrelated to the mimed motion (so you can’t just say, “Washing a cat!”)
5. Player 2 then starts miming whatever Player 1 just said. Repeat steps 2 through 5.
6. Once players get comfortable with it, we turn it into an elimination game, so anyone who repeats, stumbles, or pauses too long is out and the next player cycles in.
I used to preconceive ideas and keep a few in my pocket whenever I played this. But what happened when I ran out? Like anyone else, I went into mental buffering and the little hour glass/color wheel in my brain spun just long enough to lose. Then I discovered a trick to this game that makes it a lot easier, more fun, and an intriguing way to watch how my brain works. Maybe others do this, too, but for most people in my workshops it’s something that never occurred to them. How do I do it? It comes down to 3 different forms of mental mapping.
1. Untethered Association: OK, so the suggestion was, “Washing a car,” you’re miming a sponge and some vague circular movements, and the other player says, “What are you doing?” The first approach looks like this, using the current context as the center circle and the orbiting circles as associations:
2. Radial Association: After a few rounds, maybe you start to riff on the physical activity and end up one step removed. It looks like this:
3. Nonlinear Association: Many improvisers do this intuitively, but we don’t always map it out. It looks something like this:
Note that the blue circles are concrete associations and the green circles are attributes—each has a different function in provoking creative leaps. To prime this process, I recommend playing “What are you doing?” and saying your associations out loud: “Washing a car, sponge, soft, musical note …” until you land on a new activity. At first, it may seem odd to reveal your brain’s random associations to others, but soon you’ll realize we’re all a little random, and your leaps will become faster and easier.
This tends to be a favorite exercise among writers, actors, designers, and anyone who has to deal with the constant requests to “innovate.” So where does this fit in when you're brainstorming a new product or facing a creative challenge? To take steps toward application, remember that applied improv is more like lifting weights than operating a flight simulator. You may not find many "real world" circumstances outside of the gym where you're literally lying back and pushing a barbell up and down, but you're building that muscle for the next time you throw a ball, swing a racket, or punch a shark. At the very least, you’re gaining insight into your personal creative process, and you’ll never have to fall back on, “Um … potato salad!” ever again.