Physical Improv for Disabled Performers (with Tips for Instructors)

When we think about “physical improv” it’s easy to picture performers using their bodies to show locations and activities. We might even imagine players cartwheeling around the stage or lifting each other.

However, it’s limiting to assume that you must be able to move your body to improvise. Performers with disabilities or mobility challenges are often excluded from our art because of this assumption. And that’s just plain wrong.

(I’m thinking about physical body disabilities here, but similar issues arise for other types of disability too.)

Just how “physical” does a performer have to be to draw an audience into a scene? For example, can a player without fine-motor use of their hands still show us a character preparing dinner?

Of course they can! In fact, physical improv doesn’t have to be about active physicality at all. It’s about creating the illusion of physical objects and spaces that aren’t actually there. (This is the “magic trick” we study here at Improv Illusionist.)

Disabled performers can do this as well as anyone else. Whether or not you can move your body, you can still create powerful illusions by expressing information in different ways.

Let’s look at some alternative methods for communicating the Where of a scene. Anyone with ANY mobility level can use these to captivate the audience and make your scenes more spectacular.

(Are you an improv teacher working with disabled students? I’ve included some tips at the end of this article.)

Use different body parts

For those who can use them, the hands are our primary tools for picking up and manipulating objects. It’s not surprising that some improvisers get lazy and rely too much on hands when working with environment. Disabled performers learn to use any part of their body that they can.

One of my favourite exercises is “Where without Hands.” (It’s on my list of Physical Improv Exercises.) Two players decide on a space object, which they have to handle or set in motion without using their hands. This gives you real insight into how other parts of the body contribute to making objects come alive. Sometimes, it can also teach ways to use your hands more effectively.

Show by telling

With limited mobility, another way to create environment is through talking about what you’re doing. Many performers don’t consider this because they’ve been taught the “rule” of show don’t tell. (Rules limit creativity, and we should try to avoid absolutes.)

Narrating your activity can be boring. But usually it’s because the narration is redundant to something the characters already know about. In the real world nobody says, “I’m chopping wood right now,” or “Here we are on holiday in Spain.”

However, dialogue is very effective when it adds new information to the scene. A character can say, “How about we take a side trip to Madrid tomorrow?” That’s a legitimate question people might discuss. And the specificity of “Madrid” tells the audience you’re in Spain.

You can also use dialogue about objects. I once saw an excellent scene that opened like this: Two characters huddled together closely. One says, “Pass me another blanket.” After a pause, the other says, “The fire’s dying.” Just two lines of dialogue that set a mood and build a world.

Be affected by the environment

Think about your beginning state at the top of a scene. How is this space or situation affecting your character?

An opulent ballroom inspires awe. A tiny closet makes you anxious. A reaction to the space gives the audience a way to understand where you are, even if you can’t show exact physical details. They sense you are somewhere, which makes them sit up and pay attention.

Check your attitude

Another option is to adopt an attitude about an object or activity. We don’t just create these things for their own sake. We use objects to enhance characters and relationships.

Attitude with activity reveals character and propels you into a scene. How are you sipping that coffee? Are you a caffeine junkie? Really thirsty? Trying to stay awake? When you communicate an attitude, even mundane dialogue like “Pass the sugar” can say a lot about who and where you are.

Try to change up your attitudes. Boredom and pessimism are very common. See what happens when you try excitement or enthusiasm!

Attitudes can be easier to discover if you think about how you’re affected by the environment, as above.

Explore YOUR world (real or imaginary)

Sometimes, improvisers develop limiting beliefs that they can only do an activity in one way. For example, someone without the ability to swing their arms may feel like they can’t convincingly play a lumberjack. But the fun of improv is seeing players solve “problems” like these. Maybe you have a wheelchair-mounted chainsaw, or you’re driving a bulldozer.

Regardless of mobility challenges, maybe you don’t handle objects the same way others do. That difference is a strength. How do YOU do it? Show the audience that. Bring them into your world.

Simplicity is the key. Use the physicality and actions you know best. That doesn’t mean it’s YOU that’s performing. It means that the character you’re playing does things the same way. You can create unique characters by adopting different attitudes about what you’re doing.

OR, you can go the opposite way. Improv is as unlimited as your imagination. You’re free to be ANYONE you want, including someone whose body works in different ways. Imagine you’re the exact type of lumberjack you want to be and let that character inform your movement and “physicality.”

For Improv Teachers: How to work with students with disabilities

  • Educate yourself first. As a teacher, you volunteer to take responsibility for the care and development of your students. You can’t do this without some understanding of their experience. This starts with educating yourself on basic issues. Read widely about various types of disability. Learn the language to use. If you’re not willing to do this work, you should NOT be teaching. (And that applies for any identifiable group of persons, not just those with a disability.)
  • Consider accessibility. Are your facilities accessible to people with disabilities? What accommodations may be necessary to allow everyone to take part in your class?
  • (Re)consider your approach. Accommodation doesn’t mean watering down your methods. Remember, this is improv — you never have to do anything the same way all the time. When planning exercises, think about the concepts you’re actually teaching. Can you teach them in different ways, with different exercises? Changing things up may even help you develop stronger techniques.
  • Have a conversation. Be open with students about any concerns and seek their input about providing the best learning experience. If it’s clear you’re making an honest effort, people are very glad to talk about what they can bring to the work. Discuss possible accommodations – your student will tell you if they go too far or not far enough.
  • Assume nothing. Do not exclude or avoid anyone because you think they might not be able to participate. Only the person themself knows what they are capable of.
  • Trust your students. Once you’ve opened a dialogue with your students on these issues, trust them to tell you what they need. Keep your teaching and performing spaces open to contribution and different ideas. (Again, this is important for all students.)
  • Leave some questions open. You don’t always have to have an answer or solve everything. Exploring tough questions or situations is part of the learning process.

“…as simple as having a conversation.”

Finally, I’d like to share some powerful words from performer and improviser Tamara Rozofsky, who happens to have Cerebral Palsy.

For me, getting past awkwardness and anxiety is usually as simple as having a conversation. If you are worried that this student may have trouble with an exercise you have planned, it is best not to assume that she won’t be able to participate in her own way. Ask her if she is comfortable with the plans you have made or if she has any suggestions for how the activity can be adapted.

Many individuals with disabilities have these kinds of conversations on a regular basis and will be grateful that you asked. Her adjustments to the lesson may turn a familiar warm-up into something it has never been before – and that is a beautiful thing! Do your best to invite her into the exercise. Let her be the one to decide how much she can bring to it.

My favorite teachers and coaches are always the ones who ask me what my goals are and really challenge me to surprise myself, to push past my habits and defenses and to make discoveries.

— Tamara Rozofsky
(From a guest post on Jay Sukow’s blog, which has since been removed. I’ll post a link to the original source if it resurfaces.)

NOTE: I’m grateful to the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD), the National Youth Leadership Network (NYLN), and Kids As Self Advocates (KASA) for help with using respectful disability language in this article. I take full responsibility for any errors or unintended misuse of words. Please send me any feedback to make this article the best it can be.

Image by Thomas Bresson, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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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