Object work is a simple way to take your scene from meh to mesmerizing.
Watch a master improviser onstage, and you’ll swear you can actually see the banana they’re peeling, the stick shift they’re driving, the roll of duct tape they’re wrapping around Grandma’s dead body.
On the other hand, bad object work can destroy the reality of a scene like nothing else.
We’ve all seen tables get walked through, floor mops that come and go, and razor-thin cigarettes inhaled between two fused fingers.
When you give your objects weight and mass, it instantly grounds you and makes your movements more deliberate. It also paints a more vivid picture for the audience.
One of the biggest go-to’s in improv is drinking (insert AA joke here). For some reason scientists have yet to explain, we drink improv beverages through our thumb.
“Watch how you actually drink from a can or glass, then watch how most improvisers mime it. Just try drinking with your thumb in your mouth.” – TJ Jagodowski
Become an observer, starting with yourself. Notice how you do everyday tasks. Practice the movements with and without the physical objects.
When you’re bored with that, go people-watching. Someone who holds their cigarette with their index curled over top is very different from someone who holds it cupped beneath their palm. We all have our little quirks. Try on someone else’s for a change.
A lot of people try to get through object work as quickly as possible in order to “get to the scene.” But if you take your time and invest in whatever activity you’re doing, it can actually inform your character. Or become the scene itself.
Which is funnier: A guy taking off his clothes in two seconds, or watching a guy unbutton his shirt, unbuckle his belt, unzip his pants, and finally remove his underwear while his doctor puts on gloves, one finger at a time?
It’s the anticipation.
When you take your time with objects, your scene partner has time to process what’s happening too.
Say you’re in a scene where you’re on a date. Instead of flipping a pull-out bed instantly and throwing your scene partner on it, the struggle becomes turning the couch into a bed. Removing the cushions. Trying to lift the rusty metal frame. Smoothing out the wrinkled old sheets while your date – and the audience – watches.
As Joe Bill says, “You don’t have to put a shelving unit together in ten seconds.” In their workshops, he and Mark Sutton teach that, “Improvisers spend a lot of time on stage moving things around, and not enough time letting things move them.” That’s great advice.
Like the song says, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. Look at TJ holding a glass while he’s on the phone (below). The way he holds it speaks volumes about his character (in this case, a housewife with a fondness for cocktails).
Photo © Sharilyn Johnson