President Obama is not about to make a phone call.
And Howard Dean, as bonkers as he might otherwise have seemed in this photo, is not holding a gun.
It's fair to say I'm a little snotty about improv training. But you will never, ever, ever convince me that understanding basic object work is anything but a cost of entry for improvisers.
So it blows my mind a little when I see a kick-ass improviser in the middle of an excellent show make a cell-phone call by sticking out his thumb and pinkie and holding his hand to his ear. Or points in a threatening way with a fingergun. Or when in the middle of a transaction scene (always such a wonderful idea to begin with) a player hands over real money.
And it's not just the principle of the thing.
If you're talking to your actual hand, how do you leave the phone in the pocket of your space-substance cargo pants at the end of the call? If my character wrestles with you for control of your fingergun, am I supposed to literally disarm you to take your weapon? If you pay for my services with actual currency, how are you supposed to leave it on my space-substance bedside table at the end of our session?
With thoughtful, detailed object work, you can make an audience forget you're sitting on folding chairs instead of in a '55 T-bird. You can go without elaborate sets and expensive special effects. You can forge a 90-minute agreement that if you name it or use it on stage, the audience will believe it.
But that agreement is fragile.
The second we think getting into a car is as simple as swinging an arm out, sitting on a chair, and swinging that arm back...or that it's OK to scribble nonsense on one's palm with a disappearing-reaapearing, impossibly thin pencil/pen pinched between fingers...every time we open a door differently than the person who entered the scene before us...or even when we jump in to play the corpse in an autopsy to get a laugh, blocking our scene partners from cutting off body parts or doing anything interesting with the innards...
We've stopped improvising. We're just indicating with lame, half-assed shorthand. And then we're not holding up our end of the agreement with the audience. We're just winking and slacking and saying, "You get this, right? We cool?"
Maybe even worse, we've cheated ourselves out of discovery. We haven't thought about what kind of phone we might be using, or what our characters' handwriting looks like when we write, or whether the door has a sticky doorknob, or what kind of car we're sitting in.
As Tim Kazurinsky says in The Second City Almanac of Improvisation, "To improvise, you need a bare stage, actors, and chairs. Everything else is pretend."