Physicality in character and performance is one of the best ways to dazzle the audience, find more play, and discover new ideas. But being highly physical walks a fine line, for safety and over-doing a scene. As Spider-Man might say: “With great movement comes great responsibility!” If he were an improviser, that is.
Is it possible to hurt yourself by lifting an object that isn’t there? YES! Improv muscle strains are real, as any experienced performer can tell you. We’ve all pulled something through over-commitment to a scene. Here’s how you can avoid similar injuries.
The Biggest Hazard to Your Safety
All stage acting is hazardous. In improv, YOU are often the biggest hazard to your own safety. Great improv requires commitment to physicality and energy in performance. But how you choose to do it is important. If you don’t pay attention and keep control of your body, physical stunts can cause serious injury to you, other players, or even the audience.
One frequent example is the portrayal of effort, such as lifting heavy objects or pulling/pushing things across the stage. Many improvisers will physically engage their muscles as if the object was really there. Since muscle memory helps us with object work, we want to tense those same muscles to recreate the space object.
But you’re not actually pushing or pulling anything. Even if it feels similar, the way you tense the muscle differs from contracting against an actual weight. Add in the adrenaline of performance, and it’s easily possible to strain too much. You can hurt yourself through mime as easily as you can through incorrectly lifting a real-world object.
Contracting your muscles isn’t necessary. With a little practice, you can learn to show effort with as little muscle tension as possible. This will help you avoid improv muscle strains.
Try an Example: Hauling a Bus
I suggest you wear a T-shirt and shorts when trying this. You’ll be able to observe the muscles in your arms and legs for visual feedback.
Ever seen a “strongest person” contest? Sometimes they have an event that involves pulling a large vehicle, like a school bus. They attach a chain to the front bumper, and the contestant pulls the vehicle as far as they can in a given time.
So, improvise throwing that chain over your shoulder and walking forward as if you’re hauling that bus. Tense your body as if you’re feeling the drag of the giant bus. Be careful, don’t overdo it! Put in only enough effort to feel the tension in your muscles. Look down and observe the contractions in your arms and legs.
Now, after moving some steps, hold that exact body position. Then release as much as you can. Just pose yourself without the muscle tension. Observe your muscles relaxing.
If you’re holding the same posture, then to an observer you’re still showing effort. We can easily see that you’re pulling something. Within a scene, we’d also have the context of knowing what you’re pulling. The only muscle contraction that’s necessary is what it takes to hold that position. Which isn’t much at all.
So: body posture is the key. Take up a posture of effort, then use only as much tension as necessary to hold that posture.
Now see if you can continue to move forward slowly, as if you’re pulling the bus, without putting added tension on your muscles. Keep watching to see if you’re tensing up.
Other ways to show effort while avoiding improv muscle strains
You can also layer on other elements to show strain without less muscle tension.
- Facial expression. Contorting your face, from a slight frown to a full grimace, is a big visual signal of effort. Again, be careful how much you put into this. Your face and neck muscles are just as vulnerable as the rest of your body.
- Start in slow-motion. Remember the Law of Inertia: objects at rest stay at rest. Getting a heavy object to move is not a fast process. Make your pulling and pushing movements slow and steady. Slow-motion also forces YOU to slow down and watch your muscle tension.
- Add momentum. As a heavy object moves, you need less effort to keep it moving. This lets you back off your muscle contraction.
- Sound. Think of a creaking iron gate, or the shriek of bending metal prison bars. You can also grunt, wheeze, or stilt your dialogue to show the character is giving their all. Be careful about holding your breath, which puts stress on your lungs and builds up pressure in your head and neck.
This is NOT something you will do easily on your first try, especially in the middle of a scene. You’re fighting the natural tendency to tense your muscles. Practice is important. Try various postures and movements so you can learn to release muscle tension.
Try these exercises to help avoid improv muscle strains
Trapped: Imagine you’re physically trapped, whether in a jail cell, bear trap, stuck elevator, or something else. Show us the effort required to free yourself. For added challenge, you could try this in character. How would a mouse free itself from a mousetrap?
At the Gym: Show us how you might lift weights at the gym. Try various types, weights, and sizes. Are you using free weights or machines? Be careful not to “lift” too much. Protect yourself from injury!
And check out our full list of exercises for more practice with environment, object work, and physicality.
Have you been injured doing improv? Tell us about it!
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