High School in the mid-1980s was the first time I did improvisation.
For us “Improv” meant one thing – Freeze-tag – which we called “Freezees”. That was all we knew, and all we ever played.
It wasn’t until we entered a team in the High School Improv Championships that we learned there were other games. For the first time ever, we played whole scenes.
As it turns out, our team won that competition and afterwards we were (or thought we were) ready to take on other teams at the Loose Moose Theatre, the permanent Impro venue in Calgary, Canada. We did okay, but still had a lot to learn.
Since that time I have performed and trained there regularly, constantly doing classes and performing mostly Keith Johnstone Impro formats.
It wasn’t until I came to Europe in the early 2000s that I saw Freeze-tag again.
I know that it is played often and in many countries. I see groups use it in warm-ups or training and some play it in shows. I was even at a festival where it was the basis for an Impro marathon.
Freeze-tag gives access to many of the fundamentals of improvisation: spontaneity, accepting/co-operation, physical and verbal offers, observation skills, and so on. So why at Loose Moose Theatre, one of the original sources of improvisation theory and training is it never played?
Why do many groups as they mature, leave it behind?
In this article, I’ll have a look at what seems to be the attraction as well as what, for me, are the detractions.
Why Beginners Dig It
Teenagers love the Freeze-tag game because they can be funny and at times vulnerable in front of their friends with minimal commitment. Playing Impro “sound –bites” is a safe and effective way to move from un-cool to cool when you can cleverly solve the problems of each freeze. You just need an inspired interpretation of the physical position to make the audience laugh.
Comic techniques like contrast and understatement work well here:
Contrast: One aggressively grabs the shoulder of the other. Someone tags out the person being grabbed. “Oh… I didn’t know you cared.” and they giggle playfully.
Understatement: One picks the other up over their shoulder. Tag out the one on the bottom. “Awch, these mosquitoes are so annoying…”
Having positive interactions on stage in front of your peers can be a valuable and even life-changing experience. I wouldn’t deny it from anyone. It feels good to get praise, attention and encouragement.
But how do we hold on to those short-term, powerful sensations while continuing our growth as improvisers and skillful storytellers…?
Freeze Tag Lessons
One benefit I see with the freezing format is that it trains beginnings of scenes that contrast each other.
It is easy to play scenes where one suggests or logically follows another but it is much more helpful to a show and to our creative training if we can highlight subjects and situations with lots of variety.
Why not try an exercise where the group sees how many unrelated scene-starts they can do in a row?
Another possible application could be to play the first part of many scenes, see what sticks in the minds of the other improvisers, then revisit scenes that were inspiring in their introduction. – the “freeze” way to train a longer form.
It can be liberating to know you will only perform a small bit and someone will come to replace or save you. This situation creates a state of lower anxiety. Players become more playful and genuine.
But the important element is that some of the offers will develop into a narrative, hopefully with outcomes and consequences.
Why Not to Play It
The biggest criticism I have of Freeze-tag is that it teaches players to kill stories. Not only does it end a relationship or situation that could have developed, it gives a big ego boost for doing so.
Someone cuts a scene about two shy kids at a dance when one puts their hands near their mouth. They enter the scene, look at the other person and scream in fear – “Ahhhh, monster!”
Of course the audience laughs and the memory of the previous scene is swept away.
In fact it is often at the moment when something is defined, emotion arrives or a character could be changed that action is halted.
“Sandra finish your breakfast, you’ll be late for school.”
“I’m not hungry mom.”
“Darling you’re always hung…”
“…I think I’m pregnant.”
The audience laughs because they are suspended in the moment of shock but will never get to see how the family deals with their situation.
Viewers also react to the negation of ideas because it represents a bit of cruelty and allows us to release tension with our laughter.
We see the same thing when players block or are negative in regular scenes but in that case there is a consequence because the story suffers. Ideally, in regular training, companies recognize these effects and negativity/blocking happen less and less.
Since we won’t get a story anyway, Freeze-tag lends itself to all kinds of bad habits like: negation, not defining, controlling, or being weird because we can simply cut to another gag.
On their own these clips may be stimulating but few of us would like to see them continue.
“Young man we need to talk about your grades.”
“Nooooo, you’ll never take me alive!”
He mimes leaping out a window.
Possible Variations – Freeze-tag can train useful skills
While looking for the freeze, most players get an idea in their head then attempt to match it to a physical picture before they stop the action and enter. (We have all done it.)
It is more thrilling though, to enter with no ideas, hoping inspiration will come. That’s closer to improvising.
Some play Freeze-tag blind. Some of the group turn away from the scene and when a player wants to enter, they clap to freeze the improvisers then turn and contribute to the scene.
This seems to me to be a better way to play as long as there isn’t too much (or any) thinking before taking action. This way of playing helps improvisers to use what is already there instead of adding external ideas.
Or what about freezing the action, entering a scene and letting the other person make the first offer or say the first line? If they don’t, the new person can make or define the offer, but it would help train immediate connection with your partner.
Or try physical offers when joining the scene to train away from verbal gags.
Overall it seems to me that most groups could quickly maneuver past the pitfalls of high school improv and move beyond the Freeze Game.
Or, when visited from time to time, they might notice the Impro bad habits it stimulates and continue moving beyond those as well.
Every improviser (even great ones) keeps falling into the same traps of blocking, negativity, not reacting, etc.
The more scenes we play that help train these habits out of us, the quicker we improve.
There are many such games, exercises and scenes.
And we should always have stories in mind. Nurture the story. Spend time cultivating your story skills.
My prediction is that you’ll find there’s little time for Freeze-tag.