Seeing and not Staring

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.

Hi, how’s it going?

August was a crazy month for me. I traveled east to Nova Scotia, then west to Saskatchewan, and in between tried to find time to pack up to move my home! (So. Many. Improv books.) By the time you read this, I’ll likely be in mid-move. Pray for me.

Observation is an essential research tool for improv. But when we’re really busy, we often forget to slow down and observe the environment. I’m reminded to do this when I travel, enjoying new and unfamiliar places. But it’s equally important to observe when you’re doing mundane tasks, like transporting heavy moving boxes.

One reason I talk about this so much is to avoid the phenomenon of “seeing and not staring” when working with an improvised environment. It’s another concept from our old friend Viola Spolin…

Are you seeing or staring?

(If you’re unfamiliar with Viola Spolin and her massive contributions to improv, here’s a good place to start learning.)

In her final book, Theater Games for the Lone Actor, Viola had a big message to share – the importance of entering present time in your performance, through a direct right now! experience. This, she insisted, was the key to closing the gap between thinking and doing, allowing your intuition to reach its full potential.

One example of this is “seeing and not staring,” as she explains in this key passage:

Those who stare, but do not see, prevent themselves from directly experiencing their environment and from entering into relation with the world… In staring, you may have your eyes on the other, but your head is filled with you. In seeing, you enter the space around you, free of description and information.

When playing with an improvised environment, we should use whatever tools we have to “see” the objects and not “stare” at the empty space. By “seeing” you naturally behave as if the objects are there, which helps bring the audience into your performance and your story. If you’re “staring,” you’re improvising too much from inside your head.

Note that this “seeing” isn’t necessarily the same as visualizing the world, which isn’t necessary, as I’ve argued before. We’re just looking for ways to normalize our behaviour so it doesn’t seem stiff and unrealistic.

I admit this idea seems a little woo-woo, especially when one of the side coaching notes Viola suggests is to “Let the object see you!” But seeing and not staring is worth exploring in your next rehearsal or workshop. Try these exercises with real physical objects:

  • See and Be Seen. Walk around the space, coaching yourself to see a physical object in the room. See it, and then allow yourself to be seen. As Viola says “Avoid pondering; avoid analyzing.” Just try it out. See if it feels different to use your perception this way.
  • See Unlabeled. Close your eyes, then open them and see the objects in the room. Don’t label the objects, just see them. Keep words and concepts out of it. Repeat at least twice. Try different perspectives – looking up, looking sideways. Experiment with pacing – can you see in slow motion? Try to see through the eyes, not with them.

There are lots of similar exercises in Theater Games for the Lone Actor and Viola’s larger work Improvisation for the Theater. Play around with these and you may find your object work becomes more interesting!

Things to Try

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

  • Practice handling objects or activity routines in front of a group of observers. Get them to describe what they notice. Are you seeing or staring?
  • Most people play travel scenes as if they’re visiting a new place. Instead, try a return to somewhere from your character’s past. Maybe a hotel room from a couple’s honeymoon, or a famous attraction that’s changed from the last time you visited. Explore what’s the same and what’s different about it. Rediscover an important object from that place.
  • Follow-on scenes are a favourite teaching tool of mine. Have one group of players do a scene in a specific location, encouraging them to make use of the space and introduce objects. Then have a second group of players do a scene in the same exact location, which takes place some time after the first scene. The follow-on doesn’t have to be related to the first, but it should use the same objects as they were left at the end of the previous scene.

More for the Improv Illusionist

Emotional Safety Resources

Improv Exercises for Physical Skills

Improv Books — Reviews & Recommendations

Improv Podcasts — Reviews & Recommendations

​​3 Things That Get in the Way of Your Improv Scene Work
On the Improv Nerd blog, Jimmy Carrane points out 3 common improv traps. One of them is “Thinking Your Object Work Sucks.” Do you agree? (If so, you’re in the right place with this newsletter!) 😉

Question(s) of the Month

It’s back to school time! What are some favourite improv or acting books you’ve read?

Hit Reply and share. I love to chat with readers, and it gives me ideas for future content to help the whole community.

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I’m excited to keep in touch with you every month. Back again on October 6th!

Ex nihilo!

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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