Monday, September 1, 2008

Musical Hotspot - the game

Musical Hotspot is one of those games that I loved at first, learned to hate when it got stale, then learned to love again when I figured out how to work it the way I wanted to.

The basic idea is this: Scene starts based on some offer, but no music behind the scene. When the musician feels like it, they start playing music of whatever style or feel they like. The players immediately stop speaking and start singing their lines to that music, and they keep going until the musician stops. Then they revert back to speaking. Simple!

For the players, it’s a good listening skills game. It’s easy for the actors to respond to verbal or physical offers on stage, but listening to the music behind a scene appears to have a higher level of difficulty.

When I first started playing the game, the focus was on having as many musical styles as possible. Rap! Ballad! Latin! Opera! Jazz! As the muso, you start thinking about the style of music you want to play, and perhaps the sounds you want to use, then wait for an opportune (or inopportune) moment to force the players to sing.

In the beginning I took the opportunity to treat this as a bastard game where I got to be the bastard. Granny just died? Perfect time for a polka. Stepped in poo? That’s love song material. Low status character talking? Latin music will bring out their inner matador! Then, perhaps just as they’re reaching the climax of what might actually be a good song, pull the rug out from under them and stop playing.

To me the humour was in watching the players struggle to change gears in to a song and accept whatever emotional state you were offering them, then switch back to their old state. Audiences generally love it that way – there are two good laughs per song! All when the players are uncomfortable! Yay! Narrative? Momentum? Who needs that?

Admittedly, choosing odd styles can help to support players that aren’t the bestest singers in the world. Any tone-deaf person can pull off a Death Metal song, as long as they have the attitude to go with it.

I went through a long stage where Musical Hotspot just didn’t come up very often, and that was ok with me. It ended up just being a big gag game where the story was repeatedly sacrificed for a laugh. Funny, but ultimately not very rewarding.

Recently it’s come up a few times in our rotation at Impro Gladiators, and I’ve been playing it differently. Rather than treating it as a bastard game, and going for transitions at inappropriate times to inappropriate styles, I’ve been playing it as more of a real Musical, starting songs at an appropriately emotional moment, choosing music that fit the moment, and letting the players hit a natural end before completing the song. And it’s worked really well! We traded a lots-of-cheap-laughs game where you remembered the awkwardness, and now we have a good scene where you remembered the characters, and the music served to reinforce the characters and the situation.

I’ll probably swap back and forth between the wholesome version and the bastard version of the game, and it’s nice to have a choice!

Probably the most important advice for this game is when one should kick off the music. There’s a point where you know a character is ramping up but hasn’t yet peaked; perhaps they’re just making a discovery, or they’ve just decided to admit something to another player, or they’re right on the cusp of being changed. That’s a great place to have them sing. Waiting until they’ve done the deed or made the admission means rehashing the same thing again, and that’s just wasted time.

Be careful not to force a scene to drag on longer than it should. When a scene has reached its natural clean conclusion, that’s a terrible time to hit them with a song; they’ll have to accept your offer, and prolong what might have been a really nice ending. Along the same lines, if you’re doing the game with a time limit, and you know the MC only wants another 10 seconds of scene, perhaps let the players find an ending themselves (unless the scene is absolutely screaming for a song).

There are a few other similar games where the power is in the hands of other than the actors:

Sing about it

Scene starts. At any time during the scene, an audience member can shout “Sing about it!”, and the players have to burst in to song. The songs stop when they stop, unless the MC or an audience heckler shouts “Talk about it!”. Musical style can be fitting or bastard-style as you see fit. I really don’t like this game much. With a big audience (or an inebriated one; guess that’s what you get for playing in a pub!) you can get many many “Sing about it!”s, and that gets old really quickly. This game works well when you get 2 or 3 audients shouting at the exact same time.

MC Musical Hotspot

At Youth Theatresports this year, one of the teams (from All Hallows school I think) concocted a new game. Basically, scene starts, and at any stage the MC announces a musical style. The players, and muso, have to immediately burst in to song in that style. The song finishes when it finishes.

(Why do we say “Burst in to song?” Is it like bursting in to flame, but more fun? When I imagine someone bursting in to song, little multicoloured notes and 70’s-styled-graphic waves appear in my mind, so I guess the phrase makes sense.)

I LOVED this MC Musical Hotspot game, mostly because it made me feel really uncomfortable. What was the MC going to choose? Rap? Death Metal? Jazz? “Boy band!” Aiee! And off we go. (I start getting all jittery and rocking forward and backward when I’m having a mild freak out about something tricky I’m going to have to play in a minute, and I think I was rocking like mad. Fantastic!) To the players I guess it was pretty much the same as a normal (bastard-version) Musical Hotspot, but I got the panic end of the stick as well.

This Blog

Since I named this blog “Musical Hotspot”, you might think it’s a pretty special game to me.


It just sounds catchier as a blog title than “Song” or “Opera” :)

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