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Reading the air - 空気を読む

Another game I learned at Kani Club, the improvisation group in Tokyo where I have played many great games and come to appreciate the underlying "Yes, and..." approach. In Japanese, a person who can't understand situations intuitively is said to be unable to "read the air": 空気読めない. In this game, people take turns pantomiming a series of short narratives with the goal of keeping the "reading" intact even as the details of the narrative change.

The flow:

In a group of at least five people, two volunteers are recruited. One will be the joker, the other the spectator. While they play the first round, the others stand facing the wall, eyes covered, being sure not to see any of the action going on behind them.

The first round: the joker (volunteer one), acts out a short scene intended to show a particular state of mind or feeling or concept. No speaking, just pantomime. The pantomime should be detailed and clear, so that the mood or feeling is grounded in a specific place and series of actions.

The spectator watches carefully, trying to understand the key content -- to "read the air." When the joker is done, s/he sits down and the spectator becomes the new joker. One of the "reserved" people is brought in to be the spectator for round two.

Round two: one of the reserved spectators enters the game. (The others remain facing the wall, eyes covered.) The spectator from the first round is now the joker. S/he pantomimes a short scene intended to show the same state of mind or feeling as that portrayed by the first joker. The scene does not have to involve the same details or actions, but it should portray the new joker's understanding of the essential content of the scene from round one. The new spectator watches carefully, and, when the joker is done, we repeat the game, bringing in a another reserved spectator.

As the rounds progress, the ex-jokers end up becoming an audience. In the final round, the last joker performs her/his pantomime for the audience.

Ask people what they saw, what they noticed, what was interesting. Do this in reverse chronological order, starting with the final joker, so that you end with the person who saw the story through all of its permutations.

In my experience, this is not an easy technique to learn, but it is fascinating. Treat it as an experiment, with no expectation of success, no pressure, just an experience of awareness and communication. It is an activity that you may need to do many times over the course of time before the group really learns how to do it.

Do it with words, either as a monologue, or as someone talking with an invisible (and silent) partner. This should make it easy to see the difference between reproducing the details and reading the air.

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