I’m very glad you’re interested in learning how to be more physical with your improv. That’s my mission, in my workshops, writing, and research.
I’m David Raitt, the curator of Improv Illusionist. Thanks for stopping by!
I’ve been teaching improv for nearly 20 years. I especially love physical comedy and helping improvisers learn the skills of environment and object work.
But when I talk about this, I sometimes get reactions like:
- “That’s beginner stuff. I learned it in my first improv class.”
- “I can’t do it. I’m terrible at mime.”
- “It feels awkward. I look like a goof.”
Really, they’re all asking…
You may wonder why the physical skills are such a big deal. Who cares if your environment or object work is sloppy? Why go further than the basics of setting up a location?
Here are my Top 4 reasons that solid environment, object work, and physicality matters…
4. The Audience Sees Everything
Have you ever noticed how the casual audience member notices things that experienced improvisers on stage miss? Like when someone puts down an improvised bottle, and then the next player picks it up just a few inches to the left, and you hear that little shuffling through the crowd?
Why does that happen?
Consider that at the start of a scene, everyone — improvisers and audience — is focused on one goal: figure out what’s happening. Anything that is said or done could be important later, so we all pay close attention to every detail, no matter how small.
But while the improvisers are working to turn this information into something, the audience is simply watching. They’ve got a lot more brain power freed up to hold onto detailed visual memories.
If we repeat a movement that’s slightly off what the audience has observed, their brains flag the difference. Most of the time it’s no big deal — they make a quick mental adjustment and carry on. But if it keeps happening, their attention shifts to the improv instead of the scene.
With environment, we’re always at a disadvantage to the audience. We have to work harder to remember and pinpoint details. If we pay careful attention to it, though, we benefit by keeping them immersed in our scenes.
If we don’t, then eventually they will lose respect for us, and soon it all becomes…
3. Wow the Crowd
Improv audiences are the best. They’re patient, forgiving, and usually willing to go where we take them, even if it leads nowhere.
Most importantly, they accept the blank stage. We can stand rooted to the spot, trading witty banter, and audiences will watch. They might even be entertained.
But there’s a reason we call it a Show. People come to see things outside of their normal experience. Life doesn’t unfold in a placeless void. By giving our scenes locations, objects, and activities, we draw the audience further into the experience.
Until those moments happen, we forget how powerful environment and object work are. It’s not only grand set pieces that hold this power. Precise detail, even in subtle ways, helps our scenes come to life. They become more real.
Support your partners, build on ideas, and the audience will enjoy the show. Give them something to see and they will LOVE you for it. Even though there’s nothing actually there.
That’s the power of the improv illusion!
2. Create More Play
Watch kids on a playground and you’ll see some amazing improvisation. They don’t care about narrative, conflict, or game-of-the-scene. They live in their imaginary worlds. To them, that play structure is an ice castle, that tree is a spaceship, the ground is lava. And in those worlds, they tell some crazy stories.
The improv we practice on stage is no different from those “let’s pretend” games we used to play. But we grownups get caught in our heads. We want original characters, complex stories, nuanced ideas. And we want the audience to love us. Add in a sedentary lifestyle and a touch of self-doubt, and you get wooden, talking-head scenes.
Improv philosophy encourages us to just play. Commit to exploring environment in your scenes, and the stage becomes your playground. That’s not a box or bentwood chair you’re sitting on — it’s a bed. And what can you do with a bed? Sleep? Jump on it? Pillow fight?
Sometimes you want to be plain goofy. I love putting stairs or ladders into my scenes and then running up and down them, for no reason other than to entertain myself. And if the improviser is having fun, that mood is infectious.
A sense of play helps you add energy and do unpredictable things. It stretches your body and your versatility. Environment helps you reclaim it.
1. Find New Ideas Anytime
Entertained crowds and a sense of play are still only fringe benefits of an environmental improv style.
Here’s the biggest benefit of all: environment helps you generate ideas for ANYTHING else you need.
Every improviser hears this in one form or another. “When you’re stuck, turn to the environment.” “Find an object, or begin an activity, and you’ll find a way to link it to the scene.” But rarely does anyone talk about reliable methods for doing this.
At first, it sounded to me like magic, or some manifestation of The Secret. Just wave your hands around a space object and the Universe will deliver a working scene? My analytical brain couldn’t take things on faith. I thought there must be specific ways to pull ideas from the environment.
It turns out there are. But I needed to understand all the other “advanced” elements of scene work before I saw how everything links together. Environment work isn’t often revisited after basic training, so spotting these links isn’t easy.
Here’s my bold claim: Master your environmental improv skills and you will never be at a loss for what to do next.
How? It’s no secret. I can give you the one-line version right now: by learning how to “Yes-And” your own physical choices.
I’ve been surprised how often this doesn’t occur to improvisers. We focus so much on heightening and exploring other players’ ideas that we forget we can do the same with our own.
If you learn to explore the Where of a scene, you really can find a Who/What/When/Why or How in any situation.
Hopefully, I’ve convinced you of the value of environment, object work, and physicality to your improv. So the next question you’re probably asking is…
“But HOW do I actually do it in scenes?”
Well, that’s the whole reason for this website.