Do you see the space?

Note: This is a reprint of a previous Improv Illusionist newsletter. If you’re not receiving my email newsletter, you can subscribe here and get my “Learning the Improv Illusion” series as a bonus.

Welcome to another issue of the Improv Illusionist Newsletter, a monthly update from me, David Raitt, with a focus on the improv skills of environment, object work, and physicality in character and performance. I’m honoured by your interest.

Hey there, fellow improviser!

Spring is springing here. (Slowly — it IS Canada, after all.) And what a pretty picture is emerging outside my office window. Sun shining, birds nesting, grass greening, trees budding.

We improvisers sometimes get caught up in trying to reproduce pictures like these when creating environments on stage. Many people have told me they have problems with visualization. It’s a big reason why they’ve given up trying to be more physical.

If that’s you, take heart. Let me tell you why “seeing the space” is absolutely unnecessary…

The Flip-side of Visualization

At some point in your improv training, you’ve heard the instruction to “see the space.” Ideally, visualization helps you experience a scene’s environment by mapping your mind’s eye image onto the stage. For example, by picturing yourself standing in a kitchen, you can walk around inside that picture, interacting with the appliances you “see.”

The problem is, for me at least, holding an image in mind while improvising is challenging. Visualization uses a lot of brain power, which makes it harder to work with other elements like relationships, dialogue, and narrative.

It’s natural to want to create a complete picture for the audience. Unfortunately, that’s out of your hands. As you reveal details, one at a time, each person watching will build their own picture.

That’s fine, though — you want the audience to visualize the scene! To help them, all you have to do is be deliberate about the details you show and where you place them on the stage. As long as you treat these details consistently, the audience will see the kitchen while you get on with the scene!

This technique of placement is a more practical approach. It accepts your reality: that you’re on a blank stage pretending to be somewhere else. When your scene needs a refrigerator, make a choice of where to place it, then show us the detail — which way the door opens, what’s inside, and so on. Whether you actually see a refrigerator in your head isn’t necessary. You’re working with the idea of a fridge. The audience accepts that idea and adds it to their mental picture.

Once you’ve placed the refrigerator, though, it’s essential that every player handles it the same exact way, in the same exact place. If not, you break the audience’s visualization. They see you improvising. And they’re not a part of the show anymore.

Don’t underestimate how powerful this is. You can actually see the reaction ripple through an audience. People shift in their seats. Sometimes they even murmur to themselves. It’s equally powerful when all players respect object permanence. I’ve heard screams of laughter when improvisers remember to sidestep a table or trip over the same loose rug.

This is why clear and specific object work is so important. If you’re not clear, then other players can’t copy your details, which makes it harder to maintain the illusion.

Things to Try

Ideas for exercises or scenes to work out your physical improv skills.

  • Visualization isn’t necessarily bad. If you can do it easily and still improvise, I say go for it! Think about whether you visualize objects and locations. Try it out in a workshop, or practice at home. Can you really get yourself to see something? If you have trouble, try the placement technique I suggested above. Any of Viola Spolin’s Where exercises will help you practice with either approach.
  • Easter arrives this month, so why not put some easter eggs into your scenes? An “easter egg” is a hidden item in a scene that can be noticed by people watching closely. See what happens if you re-use the same object or location from a previous scene, without pointing it out to anyone. Will they notice?
  • “April showers bring May flowers.” Try weather scenes, gardening scenes, anything outside!

More for the Improv Illusionist

Emotional Safety Resources

Improv Exercises for Physical Skills

Improv Books — Reviews & Recommendations

Improv Podcasts — Reviews & Recommendations

Two nice articles this month, courtesy of Backstage Magazine…

What is the Viola Spolin Method?
A quick summary of Viola Spolin’s improv teaching methods, “the improv exercises every actor should know.”

The Best Vocal and Physical Warmup Exercises for Actors
To deliver a great performance, you must be in full command of your body and voice – and warmups are an important first step. There are a few “group-mind” improv exercises included in this article.

Question(s) of the Month

Do you think visualization is an important part of object work? Should you always try to SEE the object in your mind?

Hit Reply and share. I love to chat with readers, and it gives me ideas for future content to help the whole community.

Do you have any feedback about Improv Illusionist, either these newsletters or the website? Send me a message or just reply to this email. I read and respond to everything.

Now get out there and share your improv with the community! We really need your unique talents.

Back for more on May 5th.

Ex nihilo!

— Dave

David Raitt - Headshot

Hi, I'm David Raitt. I've been performing and teaching improv and sketch comedy for over 25 years.
MY MISSION: To help improvisers everywhere (re-)learn the power of environment, object work, and physicality in character and performance.

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