Let me try to lay out the structures for improvisation and then, afterwards, offer some variations and comments.
For two performers: A and B are the participants. B’s constant objective is to question A with some form of: What do you want of me? A has the opportunity to make any demands of B he or she wishes. B is to comply willingly. A decides when this first phase is complete. In the next phase, A’s objective is to ask of B: What do you want of me? B, then, has the opportunity to demand anything of A. B decides when this phase is complete.
That’s it. It is meant to be simple and lean. The intrigue lies in how the exercise is taken up by the participants and in the variations possible. Before exploring variations, have participants simply execute the exercise as it appears above. Discourage questions beforehand; the participants should be referred back to the instructions as an answer to all of their questions.
As you work with this structure, let some questions enter your explorations:
Is there a fundamental difference between what happens with A and what happens with B?
What happens if two performers play through more than one set of two phases? How does the relationship evolve?
What happens when you decide the exploration is going explicitly to reveal something about either A or B? That it’s really about either A or B?
What happens if either A or B (or both) pursue their objectives indirectly?
What are interesting variations of “What do you want of me”?
How does putting on some fictional “mask” change things?
What does it mean to be able truly to demand “anything”?
There is another dimension to the exercise which is more challenging and explicitly psychoanalytic in flavor:
What if in the second phase, B formulates his or her demands on A based on the nature of A’s demands on B in the first phase; in other words, what if B tries the read A’s “unconscious” desires as he or she makes demands in the second phase?
And this leads to a variation for three performers: A, B and C this time. In the first phase, B’s constant objective is to question A with some form of : What do you want of me? A may demand anything of B, and B is to willingly comply. C is to watch A and B in this first phase and attempt to read something in A’s unconscious as A makes demands upon B. In the second phase, A questions C with some form of: What do you want of me? C has made an attempt to read something hidden and unspoken in A in the first phase; now C attempts to illustrate his or her ideas about A by making demands of B which are to involve A in some way.
Beneath these exercises is an attempt to explore a subject’s relationship with both the Other and an object. The psychoanalytic subject in these exercises is the person pursuing the question and somehow posing the question, a fundamental question in this case, to the Other: What do you want of me? This is meant to be the question which inaugurates us into reality. It is posed to parents, to God, to lovers, to institutions, to traditions. The Other is ready with a response. Does the response satisfy? Is it the truth? Is the subject asking the right question? Psychoanalysis asserts that beneath and prior to the subject’s question addressed to the Other is another relationship, a relationship that words or questions cannot even countenance, a desire caught up in some other object and in some other place. And the truth of this desire is beyond what the Other has to offer. But the problem is, in certain ways, the Other has the last word on the subject. So our subject is left wanting…what?
Yes, even though B is the first questioner in our improvisation, A is ultimately the subject who’s unconscious we’re interested in. So the exercise is a little sneaky. It gives A the opportunity to play the Other at the outset and respond to B. But what does it mean to get to play the Other in this instance? A gets to indulge in a little fantasy and make any demand on B he or she wishes. B serves, in a way, as the make-believe object for A’s enjoyment (“what pleases your majesty?”). A ‘s unconscious desires can be read through what he or she asks B to do. B or C (in the three person variation) scans A’s efforts in the first phase, searches for hints of other meanings, reverses a polarity or two, and arranges for A in the second phase to suddenly descend into some unconscious aspects of his or her desires as a hapless subject caught between the demands of an Other and the unspeakable nature of the relationship with the object.
I realize I have been vague on the idea of reading the unconscious. Take the mystification out of it by translating unconscious as something not thought of. You can organize your ideas using intuition or creative hunches. A shift from active to passive is often all you need to do. Or you can find clues in the very words A utters in the first phase. How might the words point to some meanings not thought of? And remember, unconscious desire may be not thought of because it points toward something we don’t really want to think about. Possibly unpleasant.
Why do something which still, in spite of my efforts to jettison jargon, sounds confusing? The performers who undertake these explorations are going to be going a long way toward a new way of appreciating the actor/audience relationship as a variation on a more intimate personal structure. Such insights can only lead to new possibilities.