[This is an edited excerpt from my upcoming book, The Improv Illusionist: Better Scenes through Environment, Object Work, and Physicality. Subscribe to get updates on publication.]
Improvisers use Object Work to show improvised objects and activities. We use that term because we want to avoid calling it “mime”. Nobody likes mimes.
UPDATE: Since writing this first draft, I’ve become even more opposed to “rules” in improv, and the final version of my book will reflect that. But I feel the “rules” below still stand as important first principles for physical improv.
I mostly avoid quoting improv “Rules” such as “Don’t ask questions” or “Avoid teaching scenes.” I agree with improv philosopher Patti Stiles that once you declare something as a Rule, it restricts behaviour and kills creativity. Most of the Rules handed down to improvisers are at best guidelines to keep us out of trouble until we learn to handle the freedom of improv. But really, anything done skilfully can work.
However, I’m now going to contradict myself. (This happens a lot in improv.) I deliberately label the following principles as “Rules” for using environment and object work in your scenes. Many students who train with me get caught in the belief that they have to be more physical in everything they do, all the time. But if you focus too much on the Where, you can lose the most important elements of a scene.
These improv “Rules” aren’t meant to limit your creativity. They’re meant to remind you that environment work complements your improv — it’s not the only skill set to use, and it doesn’t have to be used every time.
1. Improv is about Characters, not Objects.
Humans connect with each other through stories. Good stories have characters with a strong point-of-view that motivates their actions. In improv, environment is one of many filters through which characters can express their point-of-view. Physical improv is most powerful when it supports the character.
Consider a scene set in an office. To provide a sense of place, throughout the scene I can interact with many objects. I might sit at a desk, type on a computer, pour myself a coffee, file something in a cabinet, and so on. If there’s no real point to this activity, it doesn’t move the story forward. At a certain point it becomes distracting.
But suppose I’m playing a lazy worker trying to look busy. Or a panicking assistant searching for a lost document. For these characters, all that activity would be natural and expected. By linking it back to the emotions and motivations of the character, I can play with the environment all day.
Of course you can add objects for colour’s sake — sometimes a coffee cup is only a coffee cup. But it’s far better to show us one object that connects to the character than spend the whole scene filtering through random junk.
2. Stay Connected with Your Partner.
This point is an extension of the first. It’s possible to go too deep and detailed with your object work. If you’re fixing a lawn mower, you can be adding and removing parts, checking the oil, sharpening the blade, and so on. This can pull your attention away from your partner, and the character interaction gets lost. Be careful not to get distracted.
(Two good improv exercises for practicing this are Conversation with Involvement and Focused Work, both of which you can find on the Exercises page.)
Sometimes characters keep secrets from each other. While they’re nearby, you could be penning an anonymous love letter or poisoning their drink. Your partner’s character may not know this, but you do have communicate the idea to the improviser. If you’re working too hard on the activities themselves, you miss opportunities to do this.
3. Watch the Focus.
Physical scenes are fun to play and delightful for the audience. But we want the focus to stay on the scene’s primary characters. If your activity pulls focus or distracts, you need to ease up. It’s easy to get laughs through odd behaviour in the background, but gagging kills scenes and doesn’t make you much fun to play with.
These three “Rules” can really be applied to all forms of improv, not just environment work. When you dive too deep on any specific technique, you can forget to ground your scenes in character.
What’s your opinion of improv “Rules?”
Do we really need them? If so, would you suggest any others for environment and object work? Please share your thoughts with the Improv Illusionist community — leave a comment below!