On The Importance of Object Work

originally by Micah Philbrook

July 3, 2018 14:00

I remember watching youtube videos late one night on improv and object work (yeah, I’m an improv nerd). In this one video*, there was a clip with an improvisor from Barcelona, I believe, who described improv, and specifically object work, as “creating in the minds of our audiences”. That has stuck with me ever since. It’s a powerful concept and one that I think gives improv artists a responsibility for this often forgotten aspect of improvisational theater.

Just in case there happen to be any readers of this article that are not improvisors, that have not devoted time and money to this art, that have not watched or performed in countless shows, dissecting and analyzing them late into the night with friends, then allow me to explain what object work is before I go any further.

In Improvisational theater, “Object Work” (a.k.a. “Space Work”, a.k.a. “Environment Work”) is the act of manipulating negative space to create imaginary props, costumes, and set pieces that help create the world the scenes inhabit. In short, it’s make believe cups and suspenders. It’s very different than what we improvisors call “finger props”, i.e. a thumb and forefinger gun or the Inspector Gadget phone. It’s closer to mime than perhaps many improvisors want to admit, but that is a useful comparison for any non improvisors reading this. If you are still confused, I encourage you to do a google search for the term “object work” and watch any one of the hundreds of youtube tutorials that will turn up, each professing to offer some useful tips and tricks to interested viewers.

But this article isn’t simply on what object work is, but on why I feel it’s important in our craft, perhaps one of the most important aspects, that is sadly often overlooked or completely abandoned.

For Us
First and foremost, I believe object work to be extremely valuable for us as creators in this art form. By existing in our environments, we uncover details that can inspire us and lead to powerful discoveries about our characters and the environment. Simply using the items that would normally exist in a space, say a kitchen, can tell us so much about the character we are creating. How does this person make coffee? Where do they keep the cups? Do they know where the filters are kept in this kitchen? How am I going about this process, am I relaxed like I’m in a home? Is it my home? Or am I being professional or guarded like I am in a work environment? The answers to these questions, uncovered in real time, will tell the improvisor who they are playing and give hints towards their awareness and comfort within this space. If we are open to these discoveries, we as improvisors will find endless material from which to create nuanced and believable characters free from forced or unknowing choices.

For Our Partners
Secondly, I believe that a concentration on object work provides our scene partners similar inspiration about the relationship our characters are in, their character’s relationship to us, their relationship to the environment, and their own ability to exist in the world. Using my kitchen example again, if my scene partner reaches for a cup but doesn’t know where they are kept, do I? And if so, why? And if they are making coffee, perhaps I can get out that tray of pastries in the fridge. What are the pastries even doing in the fridge? And if we’re both preparing food related items, do we work here? Are we setting up for something specific? Or are we merely getting our breakfast together? Is this a special occasion or our normal routine? By being aware of our partner’s choices and actions, often called “moves”, we are allowing for discovery. And if my partner’s moves can lead to discoveries for me, ipso facto, my moves can provide the same fertile ground for my partner.

For Our Audience
It is in this area that I feel the object work skill of an improvisor can be the most profound, even as I admit it’s almost more of a side effect. Our artform of improv is almost entirely unique in the world of the Theatrical Arts (capitalized for importance and pretension) in that we allow for this sort of make believe material creation. I am not aware of any other theater where the actor can create props out of negative space without first explaining what is going on to the audience. It is taken for granted in this medium (sadly, sometimes even by the improvisor) that the actors will be using pantomime to create whatever items and pieces of the environment are needed at the exact moment they are needed. If you consider a broadway production, with their elaborate sets and detailed costuming, it is almost laughable to imagine actors in those shows curling their fingers around an imaginary cylinder and beginning to move their arms like they are using a broom. It would look out of place and therefore the item itself wouldn’t be remotely believable in any way other than as if the character was pantomiming. In improv, the characters are not pantomiming, they are using an actual broom. And since there is that unspoken agreement between audience and artist, I think we have to take this very seriously. But more on that later. What does good object work do for the audience of an improv show? Well, I’ll go back to the first quote I referenced at the start; we are creating in the minds of the audience, in their imagined reality of the world on stage. Every bit of pantomimed object work we create is filled in by the audience. That coffee cup is given shape by the improvisor, but it is given color by the audience member. That tray of pastries is given dimensions by us on stage, but it is given it’s contents (at least initially) by the audience member’s imagination. And as we create more imaginary items, the audience creates even more. If we mention that we are in a kitchen, the audience has already begun defining that space, coloring the walls and creating the counters, using their own experience with kitchens. When we make the motion of sweeping or using a shovel, the audience is calling up their own memories of the same items, allowing their imagination to give color and life to an otherwise make believe situation. And therefore, when we create these items that an audience fleshes out, we need to take that responsibility seriously. They are willing to go along with new developments to their perceived world, but a particularly jarring one, caused by an improvisor not remembering that they are holding a cup or forgetting to open that door as they exit when they closed it as they entered the scene, can throw the whole world into momentary disarray. The effects may only last a second, or perhaps for the rest of the scene. Will it cause them to stand up, exclaim their disapproval, and storm out? I hope not. But it can take them out of the scene and therefore could potentially ruin the experience for them. And even if it transports them out of it for one scene, collapsing their suspension of disbelief, isn’t that enough of a reason not to do it?


Dear improvisor, please don’t get lazy with your object work. Maintain a sense of realism so that you don’t work harder to justify your laziness. What follows are some tips I tell my students and actors when we’re dealing with object work.

Object Work Is Important
Often I see improvisors ignoring object work to focus on character work and dialogue. Sometimes, they focus only on dialogue, letting character work fall away as well. I think this is because in our world of make believe, our words seem like the most tangible thing, ironically. We have to be the kind of artists that can utilize all areas of this art to create. And for reasons I have mentioned above, object work may be the strongest way we can draw our audience in to the experience. By forgoing or forgetting object work, we’re giving our audience (and ourselves) only a small portion of what they could be getting. And we are missing out on some brilliant discoveries in our scenes.

Objects Come From Some Place and Go To Some Place
In that oft repeated improv phrase, there is a lot of simple truth. That cup you’re drinking from can’t just magically reappear in your hand. Remember to set it down and remember where you put it. Your phone doesn’t just start in your hand, you have to fish it out of your pocket or bag. That computer desk doesn’t disappear when you need to stand up, that car door doesn’t close itself, that office door has to be opened to leave the room... You see where I’m going with this.

Avoid Cartoon Eating
When an improvisor is doing some rote action (i.e. stacking boxes) that becomes mindless to them, they will often lose the basic realism of the activity. The same box gets moved to the same point in the other stack over and over again. I call it cartoon eating after the way animators saved time by drawing their characters taking the same bite of food again and again. Instead, make every action real by seeing each box and where you put it. Even in this area, discoveries can be made that will drive the scene forward or create new aspects of character and relationship.

Leave Space For The Broomstick
Whenever I am using an object, like a broom or a shovel, something I close my hand around, I will leave space for the object. It seems like a small thing (and it might be depending on your hand size), but the action allows my brain to continually perceive the object as real. I have seen many improvisors use a closed fist while sweeping and invariably the realism is lost and their hands move out of sync in a way that no one sweeping ever does. Unless their broom was broken or had some sort of odd hinge. This concept can be applied to almost any object, but essentially you’re allowing your brain to do a lot of the work for you by telling it this is not just imaginary space but an actual item you’re holding. By maintaining that encapsulated negative space, you create a bit more reality for you and allow for even more discovery.

Lastly, I want to leave you with a quote from Viola Spolin, the woman who created (modern) improvisational theater, whose son went on to found The Second City. Spolin has a wonderful saying about object work and our individual approach to it. I’m paraphrasing here, but the quote is “If it’s in your head, we can’t see it. If it’s in space, we can all play with it”.

I take this to mean if you really believe the object is real, then it will be real for us all. But if you are only playing make believe, then it will be invisible to everyone. You have to believe it or no one else will.

Is there some aspect of object work that I have left out? Do you have any thoughts or a response to what I’ve laid out above? Let me know in the comments or DM me.

*I can’t for the life of me find that video with the Barcelona improvisor again, so if you know to which one I’m referring, please post it in the comments or DM me. I’d like to link it and give the artists’ credit.