In Emotional Options, improvisers act out a scene, while a third, the “caller”, stands to the side and watches, occasionally calling “Freeze!” and asking the audience for new emotions for one of the improvisers. The game is easy to play, and usually produces entertaining scenes – mainly because it makes it so easy for characters to be changed by each other.

Here’s a  typical setup:

We’re going to play a game called emotional options. Jamie and Sue are going to act out a scene, and every now and then I’m going to stop them and ask you for a new emotion for one of them. They will then continue the scene using that emotion. Now, can I have a place where two people might meet? … Bus station, thanks. And can I have a starting emotion for Jamie? … Anger, great. And a starting emotion for Sue? … Jealousy. Thanks.

However, you don’t have to explain the game at the outset. Another approach is to set up what appears to be an “open scene”…

Where’s a place two people might meet? …. Bus station? Great. We take you now to a bus station…

The improvisers then begin a scene using fairly neutral emotions. After maybe 30 seconds of setup, the caller shouts “Freeze!” and asks the audience:

Can I get a new emotion for Jamie?

Perfectly smooth, it’s clear what’s happening, and it takes less time.

Calling “Freeze!”

When the caller says “Freeze!”, it’s important to be loud. Players are often so wrapped up in their scene, and so focused on each other, that they may not hear. So shout “Freeze!” – like a cop challenging a criminal. Make sure they hear you the first time, and instantly freeze their activity.

Timing the calls well is a skill that will develop over time. To start with, here’s a simple formula that usually works. Set up the scene with a simple suggestion. Two improvisers are on stage. The caller, who watches from the sidelines, calls freeze about 30 seconds into the scene to set up starting emotions. Call for new emotions, for one player or the other, roughly every 30 seconds, so that, during a typical three- or four-minute scene, each improviser will have played a total of around four emotions.

The caller should watch the scene carefully, looking for good moments to change the emotions. If one character has just made an strong offer to another – a piece of news that invites some kind of action – that’ s a perfect time to interrupt the action.

Sue: Mmm, hot coffee, just the way I like it.

Jamie: Love that coffee machine.

Sue: So, guess what, I was just offered a new job.

Frank: FREEZE! (To audience) Can I please have a new emotion for Jamie?… Amused? Thank you. Amused.

Jamie: (Chuckling) You? A new job. That’s great.

Sue: I’m glad you find it so funny.

Jamie: No, it’s great. (Laughing) I’m happy for you.

Sue: Really?

Jamie: Yes! (Cracks up)

Sue: You’re not happy for me. You think I can’t do it!

Jamie: It’s just so funny!

Frank: (To audience) FREEZE! Can I get a new emotion for Sue? …

If you feel the action needs a shakeup, you can call “Freeze!” on a weaker offer, and let the improvisers find a way to change emotions.

Sue: Mmm, hot coffee, just the way I like it.

Jamie: Love that coffee machine.

Frank: FREEZE! Can we get a new emotion for Sue? Jealousy? Thanks.

Sue: Oh, so you LOVE the coffee machine. It’s so easy for you to talk about love when you’re describing a machine. But when it’s me, you’re all “I don’t know, I’m not ready to make that commitment.”

You’ll notice that the change of emotions is given to the performer who is about to speak. This is a good approach, because, as an audience, we’re interested in seeing people affecting each other. But the caller can also give the emotion to the person who has just spoken. One  good time to do this is when one performer is talking too much, without changing their emotional state.

Sue: … It’s always the same. Guys act so tough, but they’re terrified of a little commitment. Always looking for the next girl, and ready to dump the current one at a moment’s notice…

Frank: Freeze! A new emotion for Sue, please? … Paranoid? Thank you.

Sue: Oh my God! You’re not going to dump me, are you? Is that what you’ve been trying to tell me with this “loving the coffee machine” thing?

Jamie: No!

Sue: Yes you are! You’re getting me used to the idea that you love other things… and other people! There’s another woman! Who is she?

The best suggestions are those that change the state of the improvisers, and the caller should try to encourage these. If Sue’s previous emotion was “anger,” and an audience member suggests “fury”, we’re not going to see much change. While we generally want to accept the audiences’s suggestion, this is a case where the caller should feel free to reject it, and ask for a different suggestion – preferably from the same audience member.

Frank: Fury is kind of similar to anger. Can you think of a positive emotion maybe?

Audience member: Hopeful.

Frank: Hopeful! Great suggestion.

Sometimes, both players may be stuck playing a string of negative emotions, or one player may have had a series of negative suggestions in a row. The caller should be on the lookout for this, and, when necessary, ask the audience for “a positive emotion”, or “a very different emotion”, or “an unexpected emotion”. Alternatively, he can ask for an emotion, without saying who it’s for, and then assign it to the player it will change the most.

The caller controls the flow of a scene, and, after a few emotional changes, should look for a way to wrap things up. When he wants it to end, he can let the audience (and performers) know we’re approaching the end of the scene by asking:

Can I have a final emotion for Jamie?

This may lead to an ending – although players can sometimes be very wrapped up in the scene, and may forget to end it. If it doesn’t end, the caller then has a second shot.

Freeze! And can I have a final emotion for Sue.

If that still doesn’t lead to a satisfactory ending (perhaps the suggested emotions don’t lend themselves to an easy ending – eg, “ennui” and “paranoia”), the caller can make one last-ditch effort.

Freeze! And, to finish the scene, let’s get a positive emotion for both players.

It’s easier to end a scene when one or both players have positive emotions, so hopefully the players will take the hint.

There’s a knack to calling “Freeze!”, and, as you become good at it, you will get a better sense of how emotional changes can produce a good scene. Give each improviser enough time to make sense of the new emotion, but not so much time that the audience forgets the game. You will be watching the emotional ebb and flow of the scene, and looking for ways to inject variety into a lagging scene.

Techniques for the players

When players are given a new emotion, it can be tempting to plan ways to reach it. This will usually look contrived and unnatural, and slows down the scene. (“I’m not happy yet but I’m working up to it.”) A much better approach, in line with the spontaneous spirit of improv, is to take on the emotion first, and then “realize” why your character is feeling that way. If you’re supposed to be angry, don’t try to transition to anger. Instead, immediately start to feel the anger, and you should find it quickly “attaches” to something – something your partner said, their attitude, their smug expression…

Audiences enjoy the emotion-first approach, describing the performance as “natural”, “real”, “authentic” – even though it’s hard to see why it’s natural or authentic for a person to choosing to be angry and then come up with a reason why.

Keep the focus of your emotions on stage. It’s tempting to make your emotional reactions about events or people elsewhere. But this often makes a scene difficult to play, and characters may seem lacking in humanity.

Jamie: (Playing “hopeful”): Boy, I hope that paper delivery arrives today.

Frank: (To audience) FREEZE! A new emotion for Sue, please. Grief! Thank you.

Sue: Yeah, I feel so sad that the paper delivery is taking so long.

Jamie: Still, I have a feeling they’ll come through! …

Instead, focus your reactions on the things the other person has just said or done.

Jamie: Boy, I hope that paper delivery arrives today.

Frank: (To audience) FREEZE! A new emotion for Sue, please. Grief! Thank you.

Sue: Oh, Jamie, you’re so positive, so optimistic… so young!

Jamie: Hey, don’t be sad. The world is a wonderful place!

Sue: I just overheard your doctor talking on the phone. The tests came back positive!

Jamie: Hey, if those cancer cells can be positive, so can I!

If the focus does shift off stage, bring it into the action and Do Something About It!

Jamie: I’m so angry about that dirty factory they built next to my mom’s house.

Sue: Let’s teach them a lesson. We’re going to blow that place to kingdom come. (To audience) Later, at the factory…

Jamie: (stacking TNT against a wall) Yeah! Three tons of TNT. You are going down, Consolidated Dynamic Industries!

Or find a way to bring it back to what’s in front of us, the relationship between the characters.

Jamie: I’m so angry about that dirty factory they built next to my mom’s house.

Sue: I love the way your eyes sparkle when you’re angry.

As long as players are paying attention to each other, and responding emotionally to what was just said or done, the scene will be fast-moving and interesting.

Players may feel a pressure to respond quickly to a line. This can cause them to reply by continuing with a previous response to something said a few lines ago, rather than dealing what was just said.  When your partner says something or does something. Let it land! You don’t need to respond immediately – it’s much more effective to have a slow, powerful response than a quick, glib one. Try putting in a deliberate pause before you say anything, while you assess what the other person just said and consider why it brings out an emotion in you. Was it what they said? Their tone of voice? Might they be insinuating something? There’s no hurry. Let it affect you with the emotion you’ve been given, let the emotion build, and then respond.

A good variation on this game is for players to play the emotions at higher and higher levels, until they are given a new one. (The skills for this are similar to those used in such games as Emotional Symphony and It’s Tuesday.) Each time you deliver a line, raise the level of the emotions. Start at a 5 out of 10. Then raise it 7. Then 9. How high can you take it? At the highest levels, make the reactions physical – an angry person will raise his fists or draw a gun. A desperate person may grovel, and clutch at the other player’s boots. The caller should watch players who are maxing out, and give them new emotions.

It can be tempting to reveal your emotions through talking, or describe exactly how you feel. This is called “on the nose dialogue”. It’s rarely good, and in this case it’s even more unnecessary than usual. After all, the audience knows how you feel, because they provided the emotion in the first place. Say Sue’s emotion is jealousy, while Jamie’s is pride. Sue’s “on the nose” version might go like this:

Jamie: And when I entered that room, and saw all those kids looking up at me, kids that I taught… (wipes tear from eye) it was something. It makes volunteering feel worthwhile, you know what I mean?

Sue: Oh, great. So you get to do this rewarding job, while I’m working at a donut store to pay our bills.

A more interesting alternative may be for Sue to talk supportively, while letting the emotion shine through.

Jamie: … It makes volunteering feel worthwhile, you know what I mean?

Sue: That sounds great. Well, I’m off to the donut store. Those donuts don’t cook themselves.

Jamie: Are you okay? Because we can work things out together.

Sue: I am just fine. See you later.

Jamie: I really think there’s an inspiring lesson in this for us both.

Sue: Absolutely. And if you’re enjoying yourself with your hobby, that’s great. There’s more to life than earning money to pay for our food and rent. At least, that’s what my mother told me.

Remember that emotional reactions don’t have to be verbal. Look for ways to turn your feelings into actions. In this case, Sue might express herself by aggressively cleaning the house, with little need for dialogue. The actions can say it all.

Because Emotional Options can be started partway into the scene, it can be used as a way to fix an open scene (one that was not intended to be a game) that has started badly. Just call “Freeze” and ask for a new emotion. Of course, having done it once, you will need to ask for emotions (or other suggestions) at other points in the scene.

Another variation, which works well for a small team, is for players to freeze their own action and call for new emotions for each other. This is more difficult, since players must both pay attention to the scene, while also thinking about where a new emotion will move things forward.