Witcraft 101 – The Mental Rolodex

Theatre provides a veritable playground for the logophile. For ages, playwrights such as Oscar Wilde, Moliere, Noel Coward, and Shakespeare have regaled audiences with their acrobatic dialogue and witty wordplay. Scathing retorts, dextrous ripostes, and flirtatious parleys all find their allure in the wit of the wordsmith.

As actors in pursuit of honing our craft, it’s time we pause a moment on the art of wit. In fact, this week at Stagebite is devoted to wit. March 6-10 is Wit Week! (There are even prizes to be won! Details can be found here!)

We don’t need to be writing a play or performing improv comedy to benefit from a developed wit. Understanding how wit is forged and received will enhance our ability as the script’s vessel to strike with the precision that the playwright designed… You’ll also be more fun at parties!

So! Let’s begin with a definition of wit, offered by one of the cleverest writers in American history:


For today, let’s just focus on that “sudden marriage of ideas.” Later in the week, we’ll expand on that “relation” notion and play with giving this marriage a context.

My family, on long road trips or long waits for the server at a restaurant, plays a pun game in which we come up with three unrelated categories and try to make jokes that integrate as many of those categories as possible.. Let’s play right now! We’ll just do two categories for starters. The categories are, say… aliens, and birds.

Are your gears turning already? Success in this game, and in crafting wit in general, all starts with simple word association. Maybe you’re at a loss for any joke to contribute to the game. That’s okay! The good news is that this word association skill is just that—a skill—and it’s one you can practice and develop. Here’s what your brain is trying to do:
alienAliens… okay. What do I know about aliens? Big eyes, green, Mars, moon, UFO, abductions, ‘Take me to your leader.’” Let your brain wander to as many related terms, images, and references as it can. Move on to the next category.

birds.jpgBirds… birds… well there’s flying, wings… bird house, bird seed, bird feeder… Oh! And different types of birds. Robin, blue jay, oriole, cardinal. And don’t forget big birds like eagle, hawk… and well, Big Bird!”

You get the idea. I like to think that we all have a Mental Rolodex (or, for the new millenium, a Mental Database) of associations. When someone says “bird”, our brain instantly starts rifling through a Rolodex of pictures, sounds, and experiences of birds and putting them to words. The result, then, is a list of words associated with that one word, bird. The more you know about topic, the longer the list of words.


The skill, then, is in taking two or more lists and spotting connections.

  • rhyming words
  • similar meanings
  • similar spellings

Take a look at our lists for aliens and birds. I see “bird feeder” and “Take me to your leader”. Feeder and leader rhyme, so there’s something! “Take me to your feeder!” Chalk up two points! This is an example of the “sudden marriage” to which Mark Twain refers. There is still one more layer, the context, as I mentioned earlier, that we’ll talk about next time. But for now, let’s call it a day. All that Mental Rolodex work is pretty draining!

High-level punsters can access their Rolodex, filter through it, pull out promising associations, cross-reference them with associations from another list, and unite them with a speed that makes it look like they were just waiting for the opportunity. You can get there, too, with some conscious practice. Run some mental drills like we just did, or play a word association chain exercise in your mind or with actor friends. (For that exercise, simply say a word. The next person says a word associated with that word. The third person says a word associated only to the second word, and so on. Like… “Theatre” – “Curtain” – “Rod” – “Stewart” – “Kristen Stewart” – “Twilight” -… okay I’ll stop.) Make it fun, and train your brain a little bit each day.

Good luck this week, you wily witticist!

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