I did this exercise in my 101 class with James Eason in the summer of 2004. I’ve not encountered it since and no one I asked seems familiar with it, but I think it’s great. It introduces the concept of heightening within a scene in a fun and simple way. Here it is…
Have a group of 6-7 students form a line. They’re all in a cafeteria. One by one, they’re going to come up to the ordering station and say what they’d like for lunch. Everyone is going to order a main dish, a side dish, and a drink. They are also going to order normal food items, but modified in a specific but realistic way. French fries with extra salt, a steak medium rare, coke with a straw, etc.
The first person steps up and places their order. They slide their tray along, and the next person steps up behind them. Before the second person orders, the first person gives a bit of intentionally mundane but specific office scuttlebutt/gossip. “Did you hear the printers are out on the 3rd floor?” Then the first person walks off.
The second person at the ordering station orders a different main dish, side dish and drink, but they’re asked to make those orders specific in the same way the first order was. Instead of french fries with extra salt, it might be grits with lots of butter. Instead of a medium rare steak, it might be a piece of tuna just barely seared.
Then the second person slides their tray down, and before the third person orders, they give the version of the office scuttlebutt after it’s been slightly warped/amplified by people playing telephone. “Hey did you hear the printers in the whole damn building are out?”
And the pattern continues. Each order consists of different food, but is specific in the same way as the prior order, and actually more specific. If the “game” of the main dish is liking it rare, then by the 4th or 5th order we might be asking someone to rip the heart from the lady washing dishes in the back with a ceremonial Aztec stone so you can bite into the still beating organ. If the game of the side dish is you want something extra, satisfying but unhealthy, the 4th or 5th person might order the broccoli casserole with oxycontin all over it.
Similarly the office gossip gets more and more absurd, as office gossip often does. “Every pen in the office is out of ink. No one can write anything.”
And by the last person, you’re often in total bizarro world, ordering abstract metaphysical and philosophical concepts for your side dish, and the office rumors are completely nutso bonkers…but the audience can follow the progression all the way through.
Besides the mechanics and pacing of heightening, this exercise also does a great job illustrating the importance of specific choices in helping to more quickly facilitate a game in a scene. If the first order was “Chicken, rice and water” there would hardly anything specific or unusual enough to latch onto and heighten, besides maybe the depressingly sterile nature of the meal.
But if you order the end piece of the meatloaf, the whipped yams, and the dr. pepper with no ice, then there’s something to play with. Similarly scenes with “the roommates” or “the co-workers” or “the people talking in an undefined space” don’t generate much to play with and heighten without really having to work hard. But with specific choices, specific people, you’re more likely to find something worth heightening and playing with.
Give it a shot. And thanks James Eason!