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The Improv Chronicle Podcast – What Happened to Physicality in Improv?

The Improv Chronicle Podcast is a documentary-style show aimed at improvisers around the world. Each episode looks at a different issue, topic or story of interest to improvisers and speaks to people knowledgeable about or impacted by it. It is released every two weeks and hosted by improviser and broadcaster “Lloydie” James Lloyd from Nottingham, England.

I was pleased to chat with the show for the 25 August 2020 episode entitled “What Happened to Physicality in Improv?” Below is a transcript of my interview contribution (edited for readability). Give the full episode a listen – there’s a lot more great stuff there.

And please help Lloydie out – leave a review of the show on your favourite podcast app!

The Challenge of Physicality with Online Improv

“It’s been a real challenge for improvisers to keep themselves contained, to be forced into a square, and to try to do something that’s environmental, or some sort of object work like we’re used to doing on the stage. We’re trapped within that little frame. And even though you can experiment with moving the camera around, or try different lengths of shot, it’s difficult to still convey that sense of environment when you’re the only person within that box, interacting with someone who’s in a different box. How do you work together to create that sense of a shared space where the scene is going on?

Tips for Physicality Online

“Some of the tips that we’ve been working on are:

  • Shared backgrounds. Not necessarily the virtual backgrounds that you can get with Zoom, but even just having similar backdrops so everyone has a black curtain behind them, or a neutral wall roughly the same colour. Visually that matches up and gives more of a sense of the same space.
  • Similar shot lengths. If you’re standing in front of your camera, at a medium length, showing the head down to the waist, your partner hopefully can do the same so that the body sizes are the same. (Unless you’re specifically using different shot lengths for effect, like a close-up for an aside.)
  • Match what the other person is doing. If someone does something physical on their side of the screen, try to match that on your side. So for example, if you’re going to hand an object to someone else, we’ve had a lot of fun with people actually reaching towards the camera with their object work, and the other person reaching forward as well and bringing it in. Occasionally two players will have the same props, which makes it look really freaky. Say for example someone needs a tissue. You can hand the tissue to the camera, and the other person can bring that tissue in on the other side. That gets a great audience reaction when we’re able to do that.”

(Learn other tips for Improv on Zoom.)

Being Affected by the Environment

“Physicality to me is more than just moving your body. It’s about creating a sense of the environment, so it’s really about being affected by things that are happening. A lot of the physicality and environment and object work exercises are meant to help give the improviser a sense of detail and how we can communicate that detail. Details and specificity, as everyone knows, are the keys to performing a good scene. Through object work you can give information to the audience and to the players without relying on dialogue. When we focus on the specifics for re-creating detail, then we can find a lot of ways to communicate without saying anything.”

What will physicality be like when improv returns to stages?

“It’s really going to be interesting to watch those first few shows. A lot of people have said to me that the first shows back are going to be terrible, just because everyone’s skills have atrophied. But they will be also be freeing and enjoyable because everybody is so happy to be back doing it. Because of that enthusiasm, I feel like people will want to be more physical. But since we have grown used to staying in one place, improvising in a chair or standing in front of a webcam, that impulse to want to move may have been depressed a little bit.”


Many thanks to Lloydie for featuring me on the show. Listen to the full Improv Chronicle podcast episode and many more at https://www.improvchronicle.com.

UPDATE: Lloydie also interviewed me for an episode titled “Is Object Work Really Important?” (Spoiler Alert: Yes, it really is.)

About me - David Raitt

I'm the curator of Improv Illusionist. I've been performing improv & sketch since 1996 and teaching since 2001, including several years with The Second City Toronto. Learn more on the ABOUT page.

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