This blog is part of a series of "Classic Bovine Blogs." These are blog posts that we managed to recover from our old website that crashed in 2014. This blog was written by Eric Farone and originally posted on July 22nd 2010.
The first thing we teach in classes is object work and where work, the act of creating props and a set (location) out of thin air. It is also the first thing dropped by many improvisers as they learn new skills. If you teach someone how to do gibberish or character work, objects and the where fall by the wayside. When I look at YouTube videos of improv sets and often there is no object work at all. Creating a “where” has become as rarer than having a character. One of the driving forces for a good player is to connect to the other player on stage and build on what they are bringing, but often times it is done now to the exclusion of other elements of a scene. What is the most important aspect of a scene? Is it that need to connect to the other player on stage, or creating a character to take choices personally, or is it turning the space into a location that is not “the stage”. I think all three are vital for good improvisation, but I will tell you why “the where” is so vital for getting you out of your head and into the scene.
In brief creating the where is done through interaction with your environment. When I get on stage as an improviser I don’t have a set, any props or in most cases costumes. However these are important aspects to any play, show, or scene. The way to create the environment on stage is by interaction and exploration of it. If I don’t interact and connect with it, it doesn’t exist. And if a where doesn’t exist, I am just a player on a stage trying to come up with the next joke that connects to the previous joke. That puts me in my head, instead of putting me in a location and often leads to a talking heads scene.
When I first started improvising I thought I did object work to let the audience know where this scene was taking place. I would start with a simple action like folding towels, so wherever this scene is it is in the midst of this activity. I would think that should satisfy the audience. When the scene got going I would drop my towel folding and start to focus on just connecting with the player on stage. Having already let the audience know we are in “towel folding land” they don’t care about that anymore, they only care about what I am saying, which by the way should be funny (note to self).
Or if I started a scene and we connected before I could establish a where, I would create the where at the end to get a laugh. So if the scene was a two people in chairs in a break up scene and nothing else has been established about the where, I would wait until I wanted the scene to end and then start interacting with the where like we were in a car and end the scene by possibly getting out of a car and establishing it is in a new car showroom. That got a laugh and then I thought the audience was taken care of again.
As I improvise longer and longer, I realize that the where is not there for your audience it is there for me. My physical interaction with the where creates a set of possible locations for the scene to take place in my brain. And each location comes with it’s own set of expectations. If I am folding towels with my body it sends a signal to my mind that we are somewhere where this is happening and helps inform the scene. My scene partner and I are at a launderette, the beach, we are professional towel folders, etc. and each location comes with it’s own baggage and attitudes. This information from the environment influences the interaction and helps me create a more satisfying connection on stage for me and the audience and my fellow players.
I find that when I use one of my senses too much I have to shut down some of my other senses. If I want to listen intensely, sometimes I shut my eyes. This happens too with the mind and body. If I am so focused on using my brain for laughs, wit, or being cleaver, I shut down my body to compensate. The result is that instead of being in my body you are in my head. I have seen it a hundred times, the improviser who is thinking has feet of lead and is working, not playing. Connection to the other players is a great way to stay out of your head, but it is only one connection. If you are connected to your partner and the environment then you are twice as likely to not get into your head. Add a strong character to the mix and you are almost never in your head.
I hope in the future I will see less talking heads on YouTube doing improv, but for now I’ll settle for seeing more object/where work on the stage here at The Bovine.