Sunday, July 12, 2009


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."


  1. Of course, another sign of a professional is knowing the exact right moment to remove an article of clothing:

  2. Is it sad when the blog's author is also the first comment?
    That aside, the SC Alamanac of Improvisation is one of my top 2 favorite books on improv. So internet social conventions breach... forgiven.

  3. Actually, what Pete did is just as bad as the things you described. In fact, deliberately taking off clothing in a scene should rank highest in the book of basic object work no-no's.

    I too am not a fan of the fingergun or the handphone, but I can let it slide if I feel as if the performer did this because his/her mind was more focuses on the scene. But taking off ones clothes, IS like taking out real money. There is much more to the imagination when a person mimes the unbuttoning of each individual button or the slow removal of the belt.

    The only thing that should Pete a free pass is that it happened during a rehearsal.

  4. The part where I said "the exact right moment" was 100% about Pete's nekkid moment being in rehearsal and not in a performance.

  5. You do realize that there are times when I am feeling just as ornery as other members in this improv circle and will do something just to get a reaction right? Right or wrong, that's all it is.

    Now, as to the clothes, what I did that night was not about being true to the improv Gods. It wasn't about mocking them or even shocking my fellow Tantrum rehearsal mates. It was about me doing something to shock myself, to get me out of a head that was so filled with conflicting emotions and thoughts that, had I continued, would have surely mired me throughout the remainder of rehearsal rendering the time virtually worthless. Since I trusted those in rehearsal, I did it. I wonder how this will impact your hit count.

  6. Often times we must break the rules just to remember how important the rules really are.

  7. Psst...Jared. Someone hacked your account and is posting under your name.

  8. Thanks for the reminder, Trish, and the same in class Saturday. The time it takes to handle the weight and shape of a pretend object can really have an impact on the pacing of the scene. Maybejustmaybe - and this is a guess, but I'll try it - I could find that when I'm really attentive to the object's details, my attention to my scene partner's details is equally heightened. Just a guess.

  9. For anyone wanting kick-ass classes that address how object work can help your scenes and characters, sign up to work with Susan Messing or Mark Sutton at the festival. They're masters.

  10. There's a fine line. Half-assed object work is highly annoying, because it means the improviser didn't care to learn how to do it or they just don't care period.

    But it can be TOO intricate as well. This is obviously far more rare, but I have seen cases where an improviser's object work was so detailed as to be tedious. It derailed the scenes' emotional weight and momentum while detracting from the human interaction that could have been happening.


New rule: I'm not approving anonymous comments. If you want to sit at the grownup table, you have to sign your name.

Now c'mon. Pick a fight.