The Science of Mime

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.

Good day to you!

Lately, I’ve been doing much reading and writing for a not-so-secret special project. I can’t make a formal announcement yet, but it will be soon, and you’ll be the first to hear about it through this newsletter!

Anyway, as part of my research, I came across a very interesting science article that has BIG implications for your object work. Especially if you’re a beginning or casual improviser…

What makes object work… work?

Some improvisers are pessimistic about object work. “I’m not any good at mime,” they say, like there’s some secret trick to it they’re not capable of learning.

But how does the improv illusion really work? Why does waving your hands in certain ways cause people to see you throwing a ball, or eating a sandwich?

There’s actual scientific research into this, courtesy of Chaz Firestone, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. He’s studied how the mind processes the “implied objects” created by mimes.

In his study, he filmed himself colliding with an actual wall and stepping onto an actual box, then had those objects removed from the video so that he appeared to be miming these actions.

After each of these clips, subjects were shown a black line, either horizontal or vertical, that matched or mismatched the orientation of the surface that had just been mimed. They were told to ignore the mime and answer as quickly as possible if the line was horizontal or vertical.

Firestone’s team found people’s answers were significantly faster when the orientation of the line aligned with the mimed wall or box. This suggests that they couldn’t help seeing the mime, even if they were told to ignore it.

I’m sorry if all that has your eyes glazed over. The one-sentence version is that mime appears to exploit a biological perception process — our brains “see” implied objects automatically.

This is very good news! Because it means there’s no “secret trick” to object work. ANYONE can do it, not just expert mimes.

All you have to do is provide enough specific, recognizable detail to trigger recognition of the object. Once observers know what the object is, their brains will take over to create the illusion.

Your job is to understand how to communicate this detail, and know when to add more if needed. With just a little practice, you can become quite good at this, without having to wear face paint and stripey shirts.

For a deeper explanation of the experiment and its conclusions, check out the JHU News Release, which includes an interesting summary video.

Things to Try

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

  • Take some time to practice your object work this month. Focus on the body movements you use when you interact with real objects, then try to replicate them without the object. It may feel awkward, but it really does sharpen up your skills for the stage!
  • Then try a silent scene to take that object work for a spin! Get a suggestion of a location, and then explore a common activity that takes place there. Have fun and play!
  • Mother’s Day is coming soon. Explore a relationship scene between a mother and child. Or maybe a family celebration — where would you go?

More for the Improv Illusionist

Emotional Safety Resources

Improv Exercises for Physical Skills

Improv Books — Reviews & Recommendations

Improv Podcasts — Reviews & Recommendations

3 Tips for Using a Suggestion at the Top of an Improv Scene
Great ideas for handling suggestions from Jimmy Carrane. Number 2 is “Use it to create an environment.”

Question(s) of the Month

Why do you think improvisers call it “object work” and avoid the word “mime?” Is there any real difference between the two?

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

Do you have any feedback about Improv Illusionist, either these newsletters or the website? Send me a message or just reply to this email. I read and respond to everything.

Here’s hoping you’re back on stage and enjoying improv again soon!

See you again on June 2nd.

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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