He Said, She Said

“He Said, She Said” is an improv game where two players control each other’s actions.

The basic idea of the game is easy enough. One player delivers a line of dialogue. The other player then adds the words “he said” (or “she said”), followed by a description of the first player’s next actions.

Ann: “Want some pancakes?”

Ben: She said, drumming her fingers impatiently.

Ann now does what she’s told, and starts drumming her fingers impatiently, while waiting for him to answer. Ben now delivers his next line.

Ben: Sure, they look great.

Now it’s Ann’s turn to add some description.

Ann: He said, sitting down and taking all the pancakes, and stuffing them into his face.

Ann’s line again…

Ann: Hey!

Ben: She said, tapdancing to attract his attention…

And so on, back and forth. The fun part of the game is the way that players get to control each other’s actions. This can lead to interesting physical choices, which push the scene in unexpected directions. There’s also the potential for some gagging – a common ploy is to get player to do something that will embarrass them. (The improv term for this is “pimping”.) If done in a good spirit, this can be entertaining to watch.

That’s the theory. In practice, “He Said, She Said” can be a confusing, and even stressful game – players often struggle to think of an “interesting” activity for the other player, then forget to follow up by delivering a line of their own, and may need frequent reminders about whose turn it is to speak.

“He Said, She Said” should be a more dynamic version of “What Comes Next” (where people offstage call out the next action for an onstage character whenever they ask “What comes next?”), but it tends not to work as well to create a good scene.

Part of the problem may be the wording of the game. The phrase “he said” often leads to literary, adverb-based constructions, like the clunky prose from a bad novel. Here’s an example of how not to play this game:

Ann: Hi honey.

Ben: She said, wonderingly, as she thought back to their time on the beach. Hi.

Ann: He said, confusedly and anxiously, worried in case she was feeling bad about something.

When the scene unfolds this way, players often look like they’ve been glued to the stage, each waiting for an action from the other.

Sometimes, players take initiative, and perform actions on their own. This can leads to another common error, where players use “he said” to describe an action already in progress:

Ann: (frying an egg) And where have you been?

Ben: She said, frying an egg. (He stamps across the room.) Out!

Ann: He said, stamping angrily across the room…

When you’re not feeling the pressure of the moment, it’s pretty clear how to fix it. For the game to work properly, each player must deliver an action statement that gives their partner a new physical activity. Simple, obvious actions work well – “He said, smoothing her cheek”… “She said, picking up a knife.”

Actually, picking up a knife seems to be a common choice in “He Said, She Said”. Scenes frequently head off in a violent or absurd direction, with players cutting off each other’s limbs, falling over, or performing crazy activities. Players can compensate by deliberately choosing only realistic and obvious activities, or choosing only “positive” actions.

I’ve always found “He Said, She Said” a cumbersome game. I’ve recently been playing with a variation on this game, called “And then he said…”. I find it’s a more intuitive way of reaching the same goal.

Here’s how it works. Each player delivers an action line for the other player – and the other player performs the actions as they are described. The player who is talking ends the description with the words: “And then he said…” (or “And then she said…”), at which point, the other player delivers a line that fits in with the new actions.

The differences between this and “He Said, She Said” seem minor – a change of order, and a slight change of wording – but it seems to remove some significant blocks, so that “And Then He Said” usually gives interesting results.

Here’s an example of how it might play.

Ann: Stanley stormed into the room, threw his books onto the table and slumped into the chair.

Ben, as Stanley, mimes the actions Ann describes.

Ann: And then he said…

Ben: I failed the exam.

It’s now Ben’s turn to provide some action for Ann.

Ben: Kathy laughed, as she licked her fingers and flipped the pages of her magazine.

She does.

Ben: And then she said…

Ann: I told you – you should have used my secret method.

Now it comes back to Ann to provide action for Ben.

Ann: Stanley shook his head, then cupped his head in his hands and started to weep. And then he said…

Ben: It’s so unfair! …

In this game, when players deliver a line of dialogue, they should avoid the temptation to be clever or original – just say what feels like the obvious line in the circumstances. (This sometimes won’t be so obvious to other people.)

The game works best if players don’t perform any significant physical action unless instructed by the other player. The instructions should then focus entirely on physical actions.

When one player provides an action for the other, it often helps to look at them, even if this means breaking the reality of the scene. (For example, if Ann is gazing off at the stars, she should look back while instructing Ben to enter secretly.)

The line introducing dialogue should always be simply “And then he said” or “And then she said”, depending on whether the character (not the actor) is male or female. It’s a neutral description, and can lead to many types of dialogue.

I don’t know why it is, but players who have been precisely controlling the other performer’s actions are often seized by the desire to control the way they speak too, leading to lines like “And then he angrily said…” This spoils the spontaneity of the dialogue.

Here’s an example of a scene unfolding well:

Ann: Ben spotted Ann standing in the alley. He crept up behind her, and grabbed her. And then he said…

Ben: I found you, mommy!

This may spin off into a story about a mother who has been trying to get away from her child. But it could not have happened if Ann’s final line had been something too controlling – “And then he threateningly snarled”.

In workshops, I’ve found that “He Said, She Said” requires a fair bit of coaching and practice before it works well as a performance game.  “And Then He Said” is easier to learn and more intuitive. It seems to produce more dramatic scenes. The actions can be more detailed, more focused on the present, and more interesting. The dialogue comes as a pleasant release for the player who has just gone through a period of silent action.

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