Jimmy Carrane John Hildreth

5 Reasons to Do Object Work in Improv

I promise I will make this brief. Yes, more and more improvisers are eliminating object work from their repertoire, myself included. But really, when we do this we are only cheating ourselves.

Today’s improvisers often think object work is gimmicky and silly, something that’s beneath them. But recently, I interviewed Todd Stashwick – a well-known TV and film actor who was trained in improv – for Improv Nerd, and he reminded me why practicing object work is so important.

Here are my 5 reasons to do object work in an improv scene:

1. Object work make you more creative
Creating a premise or scenario on stage is a lot easier if you are doing something physical, such as creating an object with your hands. By keeping your hands busy, you’re able to free up your mind on stage and stay more in the moment. It helps take the pressure off having to think of the “right” thing to say, and instead lets you react more honestly with believable dialogue.

2. Doing object work helps you judge yourself less on stage
Todd explained that Martin DeMaat, the legendary improv teacher, said doing object work on stage suppresses the judgmental part of the brain because we are too busy doing something physical. It shuts up the critic. Even if we only cut the judgmental part down by 10 percent, I say, it’s something worth doing.

3. Your object work is not as bad as you think it is
Sometimes I will give students in my improv classes an exercise to work on their object work or environment work, and afterwards, they’ll complain that their object work sucked. “I didn’t really see the glass of water I was holding,” they’ll say. I’m here to tell you that most of the time, a student’s object work is 100 times better than the student thinks it was. Trust me, when it comes to object work, your perception of how good it is is way off.

4. It leads to discoveries about your character
Discovery is not limited to the words we speak. When we create a birdcage on stage with a turquoise parrot inside, we learn things about our character. By creating those actions, we might discover that our character is single and lonely, or he is older and agoraphobic. He is definitely low status. All of this by building that bird cage.

5. Object work makes you more interesting to watch
There is nothing more boring to watch than people standing still, acting like talking statues. And doing object work is a great way of freeing you up and getting you to move around. Last weekend, I taught an improv workshop at the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival in Austin, and in the class, two girls did a scene where they were seducing a guy in their apartment. They both went to make the guy a martini in a shaker. And they shook those shakers so damn sexy that they got an enormous laugh from that action. These two improvisers were showing the audience how they were feeling through the activity, rather than telling us how they were feeling, and it was a joy to watch.

If you have any other benefits of doing object work,  please feel free to join the conversation and let us know by commenting below.

Last chance to take Jimmy’s new Intermediate Classes, which now include a performance! There are only a few spots left in this fall’s two sections, starting Monday, Sept. 8 and Saturday, Sept. 13. Register today!

11 replies
  1. Shirley R
    Shirley R says:

    While I don’t know if this would be considered a benefit, per se, this article made me think of my evolution with object work, so here goes – I may initiate a scene with object work because I often have a go-to of initiating with a physicality. To practice outside my go-to habit, I will “try on” space-object work, from which I discover my environment and more about my character (#4 on your list). It’s not just an alternative to my go-to but also another tool for my scene starts.

    As a side note, I did not enjoy object work (that is in other words – I HATED IT in the beginning), until I took a workshop with Jaime Moyer. She had us do a Viola Spolin exercise, I believe. It involved “begin-end, begin-end, begin-end, etc.” … breaking down our object work into tiny nodes where we identify the movements for whatever object work (e.g., opening a cupboard to take out a coffee cup and pour coffee in it). That exercise changed my whole perspective on object work, and I now have fun practicing it and doing it and liking it.

    So I would say that the benefit for me is that I challenged my go-to with something I found equally challenging and have since felt like I have more tools for my improv.

  2. Lewayne McQueen Jr
    Lewayne McQueen Jr says:

    Another benefit of object work is putting the audience at ease with a fully realized environment, suddenly you’re grabbing new objects in an environment and making new discoveries in a scene, as well as having an audience really brought into the “reality” of the scene, it’s what’s real for the characters, now people see it. That includes your partner who now invests more in the scene as a reciprocation. also as a footnote to number five (“Object work at it’s best, is an extension of your emotional state.”—Paul Mattingly,) just like the doings of actors with props, it can be pretty awesome.

    • Shirley R
      Shirley R says:

      Ditto for back line. I appreciate this comment. As someone on the back line, it also puts me at ease, with something I can react and/or connect with in discovering a scene and relationship. And I, too, can do so for my scene partner (s).

  3. Nate Smith
    Nate Smith says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I began teaching a Level 2 class at the Curious Comedy Theater last night and made it known what we were going to focus a lot on object work. Now I will share this with them to help drive home the reasons good object work is a necessity in good improv.

  4. Oliver Oertel
    Oliver Oertel says:

    I’ve found that creating objects on stage has – more than once, I tell you – given me a way out when I was stuck in a difficult corner. Also, there’s such a great pleasure in that wet towel or fire axe or shiny penny you set up at the top being the things that gets you your uproarious, strangely logical and incredibly satisfying ending to a anything from a little scene to an entire show. I often see object work as giving yourself and your scene partner(s) gifts that you’d all rather have and not need than need and not have.

  5. Mike Eserkaln
    Mike Eserkaln says:

    Object work is essential for staged improv. If you’re just going to stand still and create, you might as well do a podcast . There’s a fun game I’ve used that I call “Silent Partner” where in any given scene at least one performer remains silent throughout the scene. You want to take your object work up a notch, try performing and adding as much to the scene as performers who can talk while you remain silent.

  6. Matthew Krevat
    Matthew Krevat says:

    Having just taught my Intro to Object Work workshop this week in my Intro to Improv series, I’ve got a suggestion loaded up.

    To avoid the “students feel like their object work sucked” scenario, take the subjectivity out of it. The second part of improv object work is identifying what your scene partners are doing. Miming is half the battle, reading mime is the other half.

    To that end, I do the following exercise. All students (or troupe members if we’re doing some refresh work) are seated in the audience. One comes up to the stage and I give them a slip of paper with an object to mime on it. They’re allowed to do sound effects and gibberish language, because that’s closer to real scene scenario. The audience’s job is to figure out what they’re miming. They stand when they get it. When everyone is standing, I’ll stop the mime. On the count of three, everyone shouts out what was being mimed. If a strong majority aren’t right, I’ll sit them back down.

    As the mime is happening, if the student is really struggling or if I see they are leaving important elements out (my suggestions are specific, so it isn’t a “remote control” it’s a “universal remote control” or it isn’t a “bell” it is a “bicycle bell”) I’ll side coach them towards a better choice (“create more of the reality,” “show how else you might use that,” “what would the temperature be,” “what makes it unique from similar objects”).

    You know exactly where each student is, and they know, because there is instant feedback that is objective. Either the class got it or they didn’t. Okay, except for that one moron who refuses to stand because, “I know what it is, but he’s not doing it right.” Him you fire.

  7. Nelson V
    Nelson V says:

    Very well-written, concise blog on this very important subject. My beginner students are not allowed to speak until they’ve established their object work. I’m trying to instill a good habit of having this easy-to-do-but-hard-to-remember tool as an instinct prior to taking stage.

  8. Matt Powell
    Matt Powell says:

    I taught a workshop on body language in improv last weekend, and had the students begin scenes by creating a physical routine without words. In one scene, one of the players began by feeding some pigeons in a park. The scene became about an awkward conversation between a boy and his foster father, but whenever the boy felt awkward or uncomfortable, instead of expressing it verbally, he could disengage from the conversation and go back to feeding the pigeons. It was a lovely visual way of expressing what was going on inside the scene, and if he hadn’t given himself that routine (or if the players had made the scene about the pigeons), the whole scene would have been all on the same, verbal level. The communication of emotion was much clearer and more direct than if the “boy” had had to explain his feelings with words.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *