What I Learned From a Styrofoam Cup

this is a cup

Some years ago, a good acting coach introduced my old improv group to the warm-up game we came to know as “Cup”.

The players stand in a roomy circle (or not-so-roomy, in some backstage areas) and work together to keep a styrofoam cup in the air volleyball-style, hitting it back and forth around the circle. Everybody counts the successive hits out loud and you always try to get to a higher number before the cup hit the floor.

We played this warmup for years — it was still a standard when I took a break from improv to raise a few babies. It stuck with us, first of all because it was fun and also a nice, light physical warmup that helped the group focus inward when the externalities were knocking loudly.

But, as we came to understand, there was a lot more to Cup than this. In it’s shared activity could be found a near-perfect analog for the interactions and dynamics in a performing improv group.

First of all, a styrofoam cup is a weird shape for volleying. It’s shape catches the air in odd ways as it tumbles, causing changes in direction and speed. You never know what surface your hand is going to hit, adding to the unpredictability of where it will fly next.

An improv show is like that. Go in with expectations if you like but they will be upset moment-to-moment by the interaction of shared play and the random inputs solicited from the audience. The strength of our play — and most of the beauty of improvisation — lies in our ability to handle those curveballs with grace and character integrity.

The most enjoyable sessions of Cup strike a good balance between safety and risk. As in a good scene, if we build a strong platform by starting with a few good, safe hits, we are then free to test the platform we’ve created with some exciting, bold moves.

Even more important is this idea: How a player behaves in a session of Cup can say a lot about how they will perform in the show or workshop that follows.

The player that dominates Cup by hitting repeatedly to himself and taking hits that his neighbors could have handled with less effort is the player who will dominate scenes by talking over his partners and pushing an agenda.

On the other hand, a Cup player that steps back and lets others do his work for him will be a timid and uncertain stage presence, afraid to initiate or affect a scene with bold choices. When in doubt, quit doubting and hit the fucking cup.

The player with a tendency to sabotage scenework with commentary and denial is the one most likely to serve the cup at your face high-speed and otherwise play their own games that subvert the goals of the group.

Many of these instincts come from good intentions — a desire to create a better outcome — but they end up robbing something crucial from the game, the show and the group.

The secret of benefiting from Cup is in getting players to recognize what the game is teaching them about their mindset — both in that moment and in general — and how they can change their mindset by playing a simple warmup game at a higher level.

– Keith H.

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