As easy (and complex) as 1–2–3

On Cloud Nine
2 min readOct 20, 2023

I have a theory that the easiest exercises also tell the most about an improviser. Last week I had a great workshop with Daniel Orrantia with the basic exercise called 1–2–3, which I haven’t done in years. It goes:

Pair up A and B and count one by one.
A says “1”, B says “2”, A says “3”…
B says “1”, A says “2”, B says “3”…
Repeat. Do it as fast as possible. Eventually someone fucks up. Start again.

Even with such a simple exercise, we go into stages through experience.

  • Stage 1.
    New people to the game try to understand the rhythm by focusing on everyone’s role: 1 (you) → 2 (partner) → 3 (you) → 1 (partner) → 2 (you) → …
  • Stage 2.
    You start to brain it out, realizing a pattern that your number always decreases by one: 2 (you) → … → 1 (you) → … → 3 (you) →…→ 2 (you) →… You think about “your role” when it is called upon and blank out the non-you role.
  • Stage 3.
    At this stage there is no you nor your partner, there is only the rhythm of the 1–2–3. There are no roles.

What do these stages do, and why does the next stage make better improv?

Stage 1 sucks up brainpower from keeping track of what everyone is doing. That makes our brain processing slow and deliberate. Slow isn’t bad for improv, but slowness and deliberation do make us second-guess and judgemental. And fear of making mistakes.

Stage 2 cuts down on your brain processing time and mistakes by blocking out external world and focusing on your role. That speeds up your rhythm, but you’re not ready for curveballs and unexpected things. You can clearly see improvisers in Stage 2 being very quick when the rhythm is on, but gets disjointed when their partner makes a mistake.

Stage 3 is where you want to be. That’s when there is rhythm — but not your rhythm, it’s a group rhythm (close your eyes and feel it). You transcend into an amorphous being. Sort of like Scarlett Johansson in the movie Lucy — reaching 100% of her brain capacity and promptly disappearing into the spacetime continuum. Ignore this if you don’t know the movie, it’s not an important reference. Taking it to an improv scene, it is when no one is worried about what their role is, but everyone is aware of what the scene needs.

Dedicated to my 1–2–3 partner Aleksander Andersen

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On Cloud Nine

An Impro Neuf blog. Evolving thoughts on improv from Aree Witoelar, teacher/founder of Impro Neuf International in Oslo, Norway.