The Mirror Game

         Perhaps the simplest game we played was Mirror. I learned it in 1964 in a workshop run by The Committee, the satirical performance troupe in San Francisco, as a warm-up exercise for improvisational theater. It is widely known from V. Spolin’s seminal book Improvisation for the Theater.

         In Mirror, the players pair off; if one is left over, the gamekeeper becomes his or her partner. Each pair decides who is to be A and who B. They face each other at arm’s distance. In phase I, A is the leader. He moves his body as he wishes, and B tries to be his precise mirror – that is, if A waves his right arm, B waves his left in the same way. In phase II, B leads and A follows. In phase III, no one is designated as leader; motion is free, subject only to the condition that the two keep mirroring each other.

         Even in so simple a game, the role of gamekeeper is important. She states the rules, gives advice, and monitors the process. Playing mirror with new players, she makes each step clear, and does not tell the end before the beginning. When they are ready for phase I, she tells them its rules, suggests that they will mirror better if they watch each other’s eyes rather than extremities, and asks A to move slowly enough for B to follow. When phase I has run for about four minutes, she tells them to trade roles and continue, and watches as they do, reminding them if necessary about eye-contact and slow motion. When she judges phase II complete – about the same length of time – she asks them to keep their motion continuous and mirroring, but now to handle the problem of leadership as they will, without a designated leader. She lets phase III run as long as seems useful, usually five to ten minutes, and announces its end.

         If there is to be a discussion afterwards, she moderates it. Here again her approach is not only facilitative, but carefully structured. For after every game, the first impulse of the players is to babble at random about the experience, yet a more orderly readout and analysis is always more useful. In general, it pays to rehash a game phase by phase, with the gamekeeper deciding when to proceed to the next phase. Because she is familiar with the game and has been watching closely, the gamekeeper may have seen much that the players have missed, and may be bursting with insights -- but it’s usually best for her to help the players draw each other out, sometimes prodding them with leading questions, and to talk about what they have missed only at the end of each phase’s discussion, and only if the dynamic then permits this. As she watched the process of the game, so she watches the process of discussion. Her role gives her the power to draw out people who don’t volunteer their experience. She does so not from any abstract ideology that everyone must talk, but because everyone shared equally in the game’s experience, and interesting and unique perspectives are as likely to be found among the quiet ones as among those who volunteer readily – indeed, in many games, more likely.

         As with almost all of our games, what there is to discuss about Mirror depends as much on the context in which it is played, as on what happens during the game itself. Sometimes we play Mirror just for fun, or as a way of getting in synch with each other, perhaps as a warm-up exercise before doing or talking about something else together. In such applications, there is usually no group discussion. Even so, people may have things to say to each other personally afterwards, for Mirror is an intense fifteen-minute laboratory of primordial, pre-verbal interaction. Its themes are leading and following, cooperation and competition, initiation and response, and something deeper; and participants may enter into many kinds of specialized investigation.

         For example, when we use Mirror in workshops on sexism or sexuality, we usually play it twice, once with partners of the same sex and once with mixed-sex pairs, and then sit down to sort out the varieties of male and female experience. As with all games, even the earliest stages of Mirror are interesting. How do people choose their partners? How do they decide who goes first? Often a man who is beginning to be sensitive to sexism will want not to be (or to appear) macho by leading first, and so will say to the woman, “Why don’t you be A?” -- thus unconsciously taking over covert control right away, as he may also with another man.

         In phases I and II, people encounter their ingrained patterns of reaction directly. A woman may realize how uncomfortable she feels in the role of leading a man, and then find an echo of that discomfort when she leads a woman – or may find her energy rise as she realizes how non-competitive this dancing with her sister feels. A man may find it harder to follow another man than to lead, and may punish or dominate his partner in return by moving too fast when he leads (the nature of such interactions is rarely made clear, unless both partners speak honestly in the read-out.) Some men are more comfortable with following, some women cannot do so with grace, some people feel equally at ease with initiation and response. Every variety of our experience is important; and that so simple a game as Mirror reveals such rich variety is sometimes news in itself.

         In phase III, the dance grows more intense and complex, as people struggle with the problem of leadership undefined, and the threats of competition. Some pairs avoid competition, from fear or for nobler motives, by taking turns at leading, sometimes so subtly they will be unable afterwards to recall the cues that were given. In some pairs absolute leadership is taken or given; in others there is a more equal competition for a time or for the whole phase. In others yet the gamekeeper will see a kind of inverse competition unfold, an “after you, Alphonse!” routine as both people try overly hard not to dominate; and will watch their confusion as they realize this won’t do either.

         But sometimes all these strategies of coping with polarity are transcended, and the players find themselves no longer separate, in a state of extraordinary consciousness. Eyes intertwined, they see the space around them grow fuzzy or preternaturally sharp, feel it resonate with energy, and find themselves indistinguishably mover and moved. No one leads or follows; they move as a gestalt organism, smoothly and effortlessly. Perhaps there are subliminal cues, but the experience is genuinely different, and with some practice people can be quite remarkable mirrors, dancing rapidly, making long spontaneous leaps, moving in synchronicity even while their backs are turned to each other. Even playing Mirror for the first time, some couples enter this state of harmony; and it’s worth discussing what it is, how it happens, and whether it implies some different way of acting together than we are used to.

         Many games other than Mirror lead their players into extraordinary states of consciousness – indeed, most of our games do and depend on this, and in the Bone Game, Totalitarian Classroom, and Synectics the states can be extremely specialized and powerful. Access to these states is part of what we recover when we pass beyond the limitations of our usual group learning forms.

         As for Mirror, it can be seen from many other angles. It is a dance, and a study in style; it is a theater, which generates compact dramas of conflict and resolution. Though A and B stand apart at first, no rule of the game prevents them from touching; and whether and how they break custom to do so is itself a subject. However many times one plays Mirror, it remains capable of reflecting new subtleties, as other games do. No single account of a game can do justice even to the complexity of what happens within it during one playing, nor give more than a rough guide to the kinds of experiences it can be used to illuminate.

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