Our Nonsense – A Blog

Portkey and Introversion

Something I’ve noticed about Portkey.

I’m talking about this variation:

You take turns speaking in the present tense, describing a real location from your past, based on an object. If you threw me “wheel” I might say ” ‘Wheel’ takes me to my bedroom when I was 4 and my brother was 16. There are two beds, only a little shorter than I am. I’m pulling on mine to try to get it next to Mike’s. One wall is a neutral blue, with rectangles fading into and out of it – a mural Mike painted. The other wall has paintings he did, a three of spades with a magic wand. The room is smelling like fresh cold air coming in from the window. The metal from the bedframe is cold and hurts my hands as I pull.” Then someone takes an object from my description and takes their turn.

The two notes I give most often, if I am coaching at all (and I often don’t, and just let it go where it goes) are “Stay in the present tense – just be there and describe your surroundings” or “You are moving into storytelling – try not to – just tell us what you are seeing, hearing, smelling”

That isn’t exactly the variation in the book – but it will be in the next edition!

Most storytelling games that I know favor extroverts. This variation of Portkey is the opposite. It doesn’t have that social pressure of “Tell me a story!” Nobody is doing voices. Nobody is trying to be entertaining. We actually tell players to stop storytelling if they start. The extroverts find that a challenge. The introverts, having spent a lifetime of quietly observing, can close their eyes and tell us what they see.

Of course, one amazing thing about this game is we reveal quite a lot about ourselves by what we notice, and you get to know each other a lot better than hearing Joe tell his “The time I got busted in a Pachinko parlor in Singapore” story for his hundredth time.

I never noticed the thing about the introversion/extroversion until the last time I facilitated it. What do you think?

Dada Theater

I received this story from a theater professor. I wanted to share it with you.

I used Dada Theater in a UNI course, Theatre in Education.  This course also serves as a Capstone course SO…I have 26 students in the class; 13 or 14 are theatre majors and the rest are from majors across campus.

We are creating work in support of the department’s April production of Romeo and Juliet in three ways:  creating a pre-show workshop; creating a study guide AND creating an APP that will be used by audiences before and DURING the show.

Anyway, the first step in all of this is getting them comfortable working with a text that uses language that is “different” from their own.  They recognize the words but not always the meaning of those words.  I wanted to do an activity that would force them to use “language they know” but in a context that would require them to add some physical work to have their language choices make sense to someone watching.  
Dada Theatre helped me do just that!  They were limited by the words in their groups (4 to a group).  They were required to make sure that they established characters, location and a “relationship” between characters and each character had to speak 2 lines of dialogue.  

It was great fun and successfully got at the ‘thing’ I wanted them to discover…that making language come to life is at the heart of exploring Shakespeare 🙂

Dada Theater can be a little intimidating to suggest to a group, but it is amazing fun, and if you teach theater, you should try it with your students!

Fast Food Joyce

I’ve been thinking about adapting some Social Nonsense games to online play. On the one hand, I never want to get away from the idea of people sitting around a table, or strewn around an apartment, and creating something together. On the other hand, There’s something to be said for people going about their day, and making art with people they never met!

So I got five volunteers to play Fast Food Joyce. On Friday, they each emailed me a five line story with the instructions not to take more than a few minutes. Some sent me six lines, which was fine. On Saturday, I sent each one five (or six) lines from different stories, and their task was to replace each word or phrase with something richer, and email me the result. On Sunday, I rearranged the new sentences, and everyone got five sentences to replace (on a word or phrase level) with something more grandiloquent. (Details of this game, and others can be found in Social Nonsense, orderable from this! very! website!)

I put the sentences back in their original stories, and the result was Joycean and gorgeous. Here is one which appears to be about the dangers of waylaying a cat:

Beyond the Pale and in olden times (or was it yesterday?), a cat steeped in changes, from Ellington to Akioshi, launched a mission to retrieve some sunburnt poultry adjacent to grids of gluten. The morning birds seemed unconscious and she fretted that her issues would most certainly overcome her until the monkeys woke up and began throwing their shit, but Nina’s brain had reached maximum drive when it came to thinking about her problems. The sister carpenter disassociated and begrudgingly pulled her hair relatives over her parched epidermis over and over and over and over. Death was appreciably nearer to every mortal by the time she had perceived her opportunity and acted; her hands became as the municipal chipper that, in her youth, had patrolled each neighborhood in turn, rendering branches into shreds, and this digital mastication resonated through her corporeal self, ultimately reaching the spiritual. She was alone, outside, without any food or drink or wine when suddenly an unknown two footed created whacked her upside the head with it’s wooly walkers. Now we are thrown into speculation with the knowledge of the grievous path of the she-devil sent down to the mines lacking the wholesome benefit of that which buoys our spirits and feeds our souls, cursed with immediate discontinuation; still the female form of Satan will terrorize our lives for now and forever with her incredibly uncouth display of fireworks at the inebriation period for our workforce.

I think this one is lovely to read aloud.

And of course money doesn’t necessarily bring happiness:

Gaining that amount of income in a singular moment was the most fitting result for People’s 2005 Sexiest Man Winner, said E. Miller the graveyard keeper. The male individual sank deep into thought about the reality of a finite period of time being his ladder climbing moment in the room beneath the water line. Verily, as the misanthropic sentinel had perceived upon the delivery of her afternoon scone, none shall be spared who lie in the wake of a rampaging malignancy. What sadness had overcome the couple as they walked from the cookery knowing this was a one time crest of their wave of passion, low tide was surely coming.  At the time it arrived to spend cash on the smoker of archaic wares, the canine of a male adult emerged into new life as a member of the j dead tribe, a hermit crab’s home of his previous notoriety; his digits smeared with sticky, viscous fluid, the fowl grease on his lower face, the first president’s visage on paper above the meal location his final one. Evelyn affianced the Whirlpool Stainless fortified scattering section in the sanitization contraption, pulverizing her Benson and Hedges into the floorboards, which sustained her throughout this wearisome responsibility, then confessed,  “You managed an astonishing situation, adolescent! hereafter, you will be obliged to arrange the banquet every twilight!”

Six strangers, living in different states, bringing something new into the world. Are you curious to read the original stories, and see the contrast? I’ll end with one that wound up poetic to me.

I’m obsessed with Shameless. It’s embarrassing. I can’t stop watching it. Then again, I know people who seem to emulate each character. Frank, Fiona, Lip, Ian, Liam, Carl, Debbie-I hate loving you so much.

This is the original story

The daughter of my mother is deeply affected and terrified of her bold, haughty, exhibitionist behavior. Time has ushered me to a moment, an occasion, a nexus of existence that leaves me saturated in self-loathing and the jeebies known only to heebies. I knew it was true, the amygdala, the hippocampus, the cerebellum, and the prefrontal cortex necortex would not let go of the vision that had presented itself.  After intentional mirroring, my soul is deeply connected with intensely sad ones who create shocking obvious attempts to meet up their movements to those of every single blue alien. Shoo, Bert, lover of men, rent-to-own, caught in the matrix, receipt, assume the engagement pose, and the pipe-called boy — my heart is sick and full.

This is the final result

Overall, a lot of fun was had by all. If you would like to do this with your friends, drop me a line, and time permitting I’d love to facilitate!

Maybe this is the way to go?

You see a friend you haven’t in a while and you are both alone, and say “hi” and all, and then your friend says, “I have an idea. Let’s have a short conversation. We’ll begin right away. It will be fun! Okay, you start by saying something, and then I will respond.”

That doesn’t happen, because that would be ridiculous.

(Although now all I want to do in the world is to say that to the next friend I see)

Conversation, at least in my subsection of Society, is a natural thing that just happens organically. So what about creating Art? Should it – no, wrong word. Would we like to live in a society where drawing or writing with someone felt that natural? You wouldn’t have to be creating all the time, just like you don’t have to be conversing all the time. But you’re with someone, everything is casual, and they draw a head, fold so the neck lines show, pass it to you and say, I drew a head – why don’t you draw the body?

I had a friend who lived in Iceland. She once asked me to “top her.” After an awkward moment, it was apparent she didn’t mean THAT. She said that at gatherings, sometimes someone would say, “Top me” and you make up the first line of a couplet, and you rhyme it.

PERSON A: Top me?
PERSON B: Okay. We like to play surrealist games.
PERSON A: Why don’t we have proper names?

Doesn’t that sound nice?

How about we try something like that in the context of Social Nonsense? Instead of “I have an idea. Let’s do this game I found in this book” what if we just kind of … did it? Write down a sentence and pass it to Charlie, “I just wrote a sentence. Write down the next one.” And if ol’ Charlie goes for it, “fold it down like this… now pass it to Mateo.”

I’ve been facilitating these games like I’m emceeing a show. (That’s probably because I used to emcee a lot of shows) Is that the way to go? What do you think?

Essence of a Drawing fun

I facilitated a social nonsense workshop at the Applied Improvisation Network conference in Stony Brook. It was really cool seeing dozens of people playing Essence of a Drawing. Here are some of the results!

The prompt was “Draw Breakfast.”


I’m loving the “Questions” game more and more.

I teach a 75-minute class. That’s a long time for a student – or for anyone. My classes are usually interactive with a variety of activities, but last Thursday was mostly me talking. Interesting, funny, etc. can take you so far, but not for that period of time. So half-way through, they needed a break. In the old days I would have said, “Take a ten-minute break” and they would talk and joke or walk around or something. These days – Phone comes out VOOM! – and then I say, “time to start again” and the phones get put away, or moved to the lap.

Which is fine in the sense of having a break, but not fine in the sense that it doesn’t really refresh the mind and body. It’s a break without the benefits.

So we played “Questions.” They wrote a “why” question, turned their paper over, and traded with multiple people. “So you don’t know WHAT the question is or WHO wrote it!” Then they wrote an answer – this was fun watching their expressions when it dawned on them what I was asking them to do. There was much laughter and sharing. The final step was “Pass the best ones forward to me – the ones that delight you!” I wound up with a handful which I shared with the class. And then we did more math, but the atmosphere in the class was… ready. We were together again.

Why do I pee blood? Because you have no money.

Why don’t penguins fly? Because they are tasty.

Some of them were silly and whimsical

“Questions” is a great game for large groups of people. Everyone plays at once, and it doesn’t take long at all. It’s a simple game with great results that make everyone smile.

Why does adulthood suck? Because life is funny and wants to ruin us.

Why does no one love me? Because Chipotle is my life.

Why do we have 40+ million uninsured US citizens? Cause Beyonce settled and married Jay Z.

Some of them reflected real anxieties

Facilitating Tips:
Especially in large groups – don’t overexplain this one! Either hand out cards, or tell them to get half a sheet of paper out. That’s it – until they’ve done so. Then tell them to write down a question beginning with “Why,” and that it can be about anything. And wait until they’ve finished. One step at a time.

Collect some of “the best” to share with the group. There are elaborate ways to do this, but the fastest is “Hold up the very best ones and I’ll collect them!” If you are doing a long presentation, you can break up topics by reading a few after each transition.

Why do you do this to me? LOVE!

…and this one elicited a moment of silence and then applause.

Some fun Questions results

We played a bit of “Questions” at a book signing, and I liked the results.

Q) Why do we have Trump?
A) That’s just the way it is.

Q) Why are we all here?
A) Because Mom Said So.

I like how in the first one, the question was really specific and the answer was more general. And in the second, it was a general question that had a specific answer. I think that contrast is what makes my mouth move into a smile as I read the answers.

Q) Why do people have to be like that?
A) To bring joy and peace to the world.

I love how this question had a pessimistic feel that got pleasantly subverted.

Q) Why did Doug write this book?
A) Because people don’t really care about their own best interests.

No comment here!

Vulnerability (3)

So I said something, it got a huge laugh from a roomful of people.  I knew it was funny, I didn’t know it was that funny, and I don’t remember if I intended it to be funny.   I think you’ll like the story.

The party had moved into two rooms with no wall between them. One part had couches and chairs, and people were sitting down with their wines and beers and all, and the other part had an amazing array of musical instruments.  The musicians were jamming.  I’d started in the music room, but I moved to the conversation room because the musicians were really, really, good (especially Alpha Musician) and I couldn’t keep up.

The music stopped and the musicians were talking, and the party dynamics shifted to the conversation room listening to the musicians talk.  They were talking about Tom Waits, and how great and influential he was, and Alpha Musician knew more about him than anyone.  So he was like the Alpha Tom Waits fan, too.

“I love Small Change
“Me too. I saw him on that tour. It made me want to play music!”
ALPHA MUSICIAN: “Yeah, he was backed by The Nocturnal Emissions – they were also excellent, you should check them out.”

“I remember Foreign Affairs
“Oh yeah, Bob Dylan said it was really influential or something like that.”
ALPHA MUSICIAN: “Yeah, Bob Alcivar was its arranger. Tom Waits started dating Rickie Lee Jones after that, even though he had Bette Midler sing ‘I never talk to strangers’ with him on that one.”

You get the idea.  So after a while I, from the other room, piped up loudly.

“Most people don’t know this, but he actually wrote ‘Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, I’ve got Love in my Tummy.’ ”  Now the room went silent.  Even the conversation room which had already been quiet went more quiet.  The musicians all looked surprised and were looking at each other to see who had already known that.  I had been making eye-contact with Alpha Musician when I said that, and his eyes clearly said, “You are lying. I know it.  But I won’t say anything.”  He wasn’t going to rat me out.

One comedy beat went by, and then one of the musicians said, “Really?”

And I said, “No, no, not really,” and everyone laughed, it was funny.

And then I said, “You see, I haven’t said anything in a while, and I wanted attention.”  This statement was completely true.

And everyone went nuts with laughter!  The musicians laughed, the conversation room roared, even Alpha Musician laughed.  It was great.  I don’t like being made fun of, but that isn’t what was happening.  Was I being laughed WITH?  Or laughed AT?  I’m not sure – somewhere in between.  But it was masterful, even though unintentional.

When the laughter died down and everyone was talking, I turned to a good friend sitting next to me and said to her, “Come on, it’s not like other people haven’t done the same thing.”  And she said, “Yes, Douglas, we all do that, but we don’t admit it.”

Vulnerability.  That joke came from a place of vulnerability.  A former mentor, Stevie Ray, taught me about kinds of laughter – laughter of superiority, of contrast, of surprise, of delight, etc. This was laughter of recognition.  “Yes, Douglas, we all do that, but we don’t admit it.”  I guess it is weird to call it a “joke” – but whatever you call it, it wasn’t something I would have said before I got into the whole improv thing.  And I made people laugh – not at anyone per se, but at a kind of kinship.  “We all do that.”  There was a roomful of people who hadn’t said anything in a while, and wanted attention. And now it was out there.  And the laughter kind of released it.

That’s the end – but I have to tie it back to the second part of this three-parter.  I’m not saying “You should be like I was!”  Because I was in a roomful of people who made me feel safe to make that joke.  I laid myself out there, and nobody made me regret it.  I’m not about to sell “Get laughs through being vulnerable” refrigerator magnets and coffee cups on this website.  But it’s something to think about, isn’t it?

Exquisite Corpse – Epic Game

So, Spocili’s Reverb hosted an author signing the other day, and we did something fun. I got a roll of butcher paper, and we did an epic game of Exquisite Corpse.

Once upon a time in a land not so far away trouble was just around the corner. The town’s idyllic exterior was marred by one angry puppy. The puppy’s eyes were filled with hatred towards all neighbor cats. The cat gang convened an emergency meeting to problem solve and plot. They decided upon aiding in the overthrow of their masters. So they started plotting this master plan, but unfortunately, it was in the middle of Maucker Union! And then the heavy rain came and flooded the union at UNI and they had to escape. Their escape route took them into Wright Hall and upstairs to the Math Department office. There, sitting in the darkness, sulked a lonely and distraught professor, who was suddenly unable to remember Pythagoras’s Theorem. Even worse, he suddenly realized he was not wearing any pants. Panicked, he ran straight into a door.

It was an amazing venue for a book signing, really. Nice big tables, people hanging out, incredible food and drinks. This was a really fun event!

Facilitating Tip: If you have a lot of people playing, instead of passing around a sheet of paper, try playing with rolls of butcher paper and a big marker!

Vulnerability (2)

Last month, my view on vulnerability changed in a way I didn’t expect. I was at a talk by Angie Lina, and it got me thinking in a new way, as the best talks do.

We agree, I assume, that letting ourselves be more vulnerable is (in general) a positive thing. Last week I wrote about how reluctance to be vulnerable takes away from Social Nonsense games in particular, and life in general. And how the act of saying, “Hey, let’s play a game” is a vulnerable act.

The Tom Waits story is a great example, but I didn’t tell it, because that’s not what I really wanted to write about. Just take it as granted that my life got a lot better when I started letting myself be open, take social risks, etc. And that your life will be better, too.

And yeah, that’s kind of bullshit, isn’t it?

I mean, it’s true, for me at least, but let me give you an example. Once upon a time my friends were talking about Yoko Ono, making the standard jokes, and I mentioned that I liked her music. Someone said that they had never actually heard her music, and we’d all been drinking, and I did my falsetto rendition of Sisters Oh Sisters from the Some Time in New York City album. Yes, I can imitate Yoko Ono singing, yes, I do a good job, and yes, I have the lyrics to Sisters oh Sisters memorized. What a social risk I took! I opened myself up! I’m so enlightened!

Except it wasn’t really a risk. I’ve spent decades building a community around myself where I am safe. Yes, I may have gotten funny looks. Yes, I may even have… gotten teased. But risk? Nobody was going to scream “faggot!” at me, like my social group would have a few decades ago. Nobody was going to hit me for it – that would have been on the table a few decades ago, too. Nobody was going to surreptitiously take video and post it on facebook. There are people like that – I don’t hang out with them. Due to a combination of luck and skill I’m in a physically and psychologically safe place. Being vulnerable is difficult for me, but the “risk” isn’t really what it seems like.

So I get paid by the UNI College of Business to tell students about the joys of risk-taking and allowing oneself to be vulnerable by doing one’s best. And the ones who feel safe nod and smile, and I don’t see the other ones, or at least I didn’t before.

Am I being vulnerable now? Is this honesty a risky thing? I feel like it is. But really, how risky is it? I’m a tenured professor of mathematics and highly valued by my department. Maybe you’ll tease me. Maybe you’ll stop reading this blog. But we both know that even that probably won’t happen. I’m feeling brave but it’s not really bravery, is it?

So what’s my point? Maybe instead of exploring how we can learn to take risks, and how to be less afraid of being vulnerable, maybe we should be exploring how we can make other people feel safe enough to take risks. Maybe we should be noticing ways in which we make people less or more afraid to be vulnerable in front of us. Is it safe for people to do embarrassing things at a party in front of us? Is it safe for them to tell us how they really are if “fine” is not the answer? Is it safe for them to choke up and cry a bit? How vulnerable can they be in front of us before we make them regret it?

Since I started thinking along those lines, I noticed things in my own behavior, little things, ways that I make people less able to take those social risks as I’m espousing the philosophy that they should take more. And that’s what I was really thinking about as I wrote that last post. What can we do differently? What should we do differently?

I believe that this has everything to do with the book. Thanks for listening.