How not to sabotage your object work

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.

How goes it?

In my part of the world, restrictions are easing this month, so we’re returning to live shows… again. Not sure when (or if) we’ll ever be back to a regular rhythm, but it’s exciting nonetheless.

I really hope you’re enjoying these articles. If you have an improv topic you’d like to learn more about, please let me know.

This month, we’re looking at some bad object work habits that can trip up your improv…

Avoid these common traps for object work

1. Using your hand as an indicator.

One common issue is using your hand as if it’s the actual object. For example, I’ve seen people use their index finger as a knife, spreading jam directly on their other hand, which is supposed to be a piece of toast. We’ve all seen people show phones by speaking into their pinky and listening to their thumb. Or hold a gun with thumb straight up and index finger as the barrel. These are shortcuts, not object work. You want to draw the audience into your improv. Indicator shortcuts knock them out of their trance.

2. Mixing real and space objects.

I see this happen a lot with clothing, where a player chooses to take off their real shoes, then later takes off an improvised jacket. Whatever effect you might achieve with a real prop is lost to confusion when you start improvising other objects. I think you’re better to always improvise every object, but you should at least stay consistent if you introduce real props.

3. Creating too many objects.

Yes, we want to give the audience a sense of place, but working too many objects into a scene is distracting, for them and for YOU. Remember the scene is not about the objects, it’s about the characters. They can be affected by one object as much, maybe more, as five objects. One exception: sometimes you may find a game in your scene that calls for you to add as many objects as you can find. In that case, go crazy!

4. Losing connection with your partner.

Don’t get so focused on the object work that you distract yourself from your scene partner. Maintain regular eye contact.

5. Hiding your object work from the audience and partners.

Play your object work out to the audience so everyone can see, even if your character is doing something “secret.” Look for ways to communicate this context to your partner, so they can see the object work while playing the character as not seeing it.

Things to Try

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

  • “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” Try an outdoor scene and really focus on the weather conditions. Can you show them without making it part of the dialogue?
  • Visit a new, unfamiliar location. Sit quietly and take in as many details as you notice: sights, sounds, smells. What kind of people are here? What activities are they doing?
  • Take a few minutes regularly to practice your object work. Try handling a real object, noticing the movements of your hand and body, then repeating the same action without the object. (Learn more about this muscle memory trick in my “Learning the Improv Illusion” series.)

More for the Improv Illusionist

Emotional Safety Resources

Improv Exercises for Physical Skills

Improv Books — Reviews & Recommendations
I reviewed a few “deeper reading” titles recently. Check them out if you want to nerd out on the mechanics of movement or physical comedy.

Improv Podcasts — Reviews & Recommendations

News and Links

3 Ways to Be More Physical in Your Improv Scenes
Courtesy of Jimmy Carrane (Improv Nerd podcast), some quick scene-starting tips to bring out your physicality.

Question(s) of the Month

What part of improv do you feel trips you up the most?

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.

Thanks for being here. Thanks for supporting and contributing to live theatre.

See you again on April 7th.

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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