3 Things That Get in the Way of Your Improv Scene Work

Lately I’ve been noticing that there are a few basic roadblocks that many improvisers have in their scene work that prevent them from getting ahead in their improv. Each of these things is easy to change, and I guarantee by making a few of these simple adjustments, you’ll be able to take your scenes from good to great.

Read below to find out if you fall into one of the common improv traps and how you can do each one differently. Enjoy!

  1. Agreeing Too Much
    “Yes, and” is one of the most misunderstood concepts of improv. It doesn’t mean you have to literally say “yes, and….” to anything and everything on stage. If you don’t think your character would say yes to something, it’s perfectly fine to say no.What “yes, and” really means is that we must agree to the facts of the scene and to the reality of the scene. Everything else is negotiable.

    If we start the scene and the first person puts us in a bar, it is easier for both of us to agree we are in a bar. If we discover we are brother and sister, it is just easier to agree we are brother and sister. Those are the facts of the scene.

    I have seen some improvisers not agree on the facts and they have made it work, but they are usually more experienced players. If you are starting out, make it easier on yourself and increase your success rate by agreeing to the facts of the scene.

    For example, in the scene where we have agreed to be in bar and we are brother and sister, let’s say the brother is a recovering alcoholic and has now been sober for 18 days. The sister offers to buy him his favorite beer, Sam Adams. It makes perfect sense for him to say, “No, I am sober now, I have not had a drink in 18 days.” He doesn’t have to say yes to having the beer. For that scene and that character, that is a strong choice.

  1. Thinking Your Object Work Sucks
    I have yet met an improv student who says “I do great object work” or “I love object work.”  Instead, most improvisers avoid it because they feel self-conscious pretending to create things out of thin air, so they judge their object work harshly. They believe if it isn’t perfect, they shouldn’t even try, so they don’t. And instead we see two people frozen on stage like two statues in some vague environment that pretty much resembles a blank stage with a black back wall.I really think there is something magical for the audience when improvisers take that little extra time to transform a bare stage into an environment. And the truth is, it usually doesn’t take that much effort on the part of the improvisers.

    Just so you know, I am one of the those improviser who thinks their object works sucks and I was reminded two weeks ago from one of my Art of Slow Comedy classes if you start with an activity like digging a ditch or washing windows, it gets you out of your head. Too my surprise, a lot of students expressed to me how having something to do gave them a sense of freedom and kept them out of their head.

    In fact, when they started doing something physical at the beginning of the scene, they tended to make stronger, more committed choices, which is always a bonus.

  1. Monologuing Your Scenes
    When I am dead and gone, I hope one of my legacies is that I am remembered as that crazy improv teacher who beat into people’s heads the importance of improvising one line at time. Del Close said “improv is like a ping-pong game,” meaning that we need to only say one thing and then let our scene partner say something else. Del was preaching this to us way back in the ’80s and it is still true today.Unfortunately, some improvisers have developed a bad habit of spewing out too much dialogue at their partner, like they are throwing out 14 life vests to drowning person when all they need is one.

    I think one of the reasons people say too many lines at a time is nerves; people get uncomfortable with the silence. They overload their scene partner with too much information and don’t give them space to respond, and they both drown a miserable death in the improv ocean.

    The remedy is simple, but not easy, and it always take a lot discipline and repetition to remember: Slow down the dialogue to one or two lines at a time and then shut the fuck up and wait for your partner to respond. Yes, there may be some silence. Yes, you may be uncomfortable, but do not speak until your partner says something. If you want, you can actually take a couple of seconds yourself before you respond to see how your partner is dealing with the silence.

    Then, when you do open your mouth, respond to what you partner has just said and build off the information they gave you. If you start playing like this, I guarantee that you will start surprising the shit out yourself, your partner, and the audience.

Want to find out what other blindspots you have in your improv? Check out Jimmy’s next Two-Person Scene Tune-Up on April 14. Early Bird Discount ends March 30!

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!