Talk Less, Feel More

How real things on stage can create real meaning in Impro

November, 2014


An Empty Stage

Stages in Shakespeare’s time had little set to speak of. Costumes and props provided color and texture instead, and represented the visual placement of the play.

Jacques Copeau then Michel Saint-Denis in France of the 20’s and 30’s also wanted the flexibility and imaginative potential of a mostly bare stage. To fill it, they became masters in clowning, acrobatics, characterization, improvisation and play. They also enriched their shows with transforming costumes, props and masks.

Improvisation today, still in its early phase (or perhaps stuck there) is often found in empty, borrowed theatre spaces or else in clubs and cafes on a small stage in front of a blank wall.

For reasons conscious or un-conscious, rarely do Impro companies bring in their own furniture, costumes, decorations, etc.

Shows are often performed with no visual design at all.


The Issue of Stuff

So what effect does a stage setting without anything to look at or interact with have on improvisation? What do the players rely on or connect to when there are no tangible or tactile goods from which to draw inspiration?

Few improvisers ask themselves these questions and those who do often decide it’s best to include few, if any, physical things in an Impro show.

Rationalizations I have heard include:

  • We don’t have anything / Who’s going to carry it?
  • The audience can imagine everything
  • Design elements slow the show down
  • Props and costumes are messy
  • Players act silly with them
  • Black (or solid color) is cleaner, more professional
  • Mime is better
  • We can physicalize characters
  • The music provides imagery

Many beginner groups just don’t know you can have set/props/costumes. They haven’t seen it before so the idea is outside of their frame of reference.

Others improvise as a hobby and it remains a small part of their lives.

For many of these groups, the improvised and spontaneous approach to theatre got twisted and expanded somewhere along the line to mean ‘we don’t prepare or orchestrate anything’.

But how about groups who have committed to Impro as their primary source of artistic expression, those who find it a personal passion or even the ones make a living at it?

Where is the color in their shows; the weight, the texture that could help tell the stories they are trying to tell?

So much thought goes into formats, narrative and performance skills, yet almost no time is spent figuring out how to incorporate style and design.

Perhaps I am struck by this because I trained in a theatre with a different approach.


Snogger History

The word “sceneography” was used and the role of Impro “sceneographer” (“Snogger”) was developed at Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary in the 1980s.

The theatre at that time had a large stage as well as space backstage out from which you could bring furniture, set pieces and set dressing; including a bed, sofa, boat (all on wheels) a car (golf cart), thrones, desks, tables, etc. A swing could be lowered from the ceiling and at one point, a chandelier.

There was an enormous warehouse space beside the theatre (remember this is Canada) with sets from past shows: castle towers, wishing wells, horses, gallows and lots of other donated junk and building projects.

Because ‘The Moose’ also produced scripted shows (especially children’s shows) at the same time as regular improvisation offerings, there were always tangible things to play with and on, as the improvisers were trained and the company grew.

Today there are always one or two people who play the role of sceneographic artist during regular Impro performances, or a least some “movers” to help efficiently change physical settings.

One scene might be in a swamp with camouflage netting and blue cloth on the ground and someone blowing bubbles from under the back curtain. Another might be in a castle with tapestries on the wall and a long table where a servant has to relay messages from the queen to the king.

Then there is the famous bed and sofa each fitted with a hidden hole so characters can be sucked down into them or emerge from the underworld or another dimension.

The “Snoggers” move efficiently and react instantly to provide what players or directors require, or to offer something out of their own inspiration. They are improvising just like the sound, lights, directors and players.

Impro training in this type of environment with so much “Mise en Scene” is a luxury and clearly most companies can’t offer so many scenic elements.

Yet the development that it nurtures is important. On a blank stage, we unknowingly begin to focus then rely on our brains. That means our ideas, wit, and words. We may be leaving physicality and feelings behind.

It could be possible for the ‘bare stage’ situation to force the body to come alive and fill the empty space with physical exploration and discovery, but I have rarely seen it happen. Most groups get stuck in the trap of becoming more and more clever.


A Mask Perspective

My passion these days is a type of mask-work where the mask leads and the player follows. I explore how changing someone’s appearance and covering their face can cause a complete transformation. Smaller shifts can also take effect with other triggers like wigs, glasses, teeth or even by making faces. The main idea is that it gives people an excuse to let go of their own limitations. To take a break from their social selves. Most react to this temporary transformation with great joy and relief. More importantly, from an improviser’s perspective, it puts them in an open state where they feel less judged. As a result, tension and fear subside. This kind of improviser is likely not to be stuck in their head thinking what to do next.

I believe a related effect in terms of a player’s transformation and transportation can be gained from having costume, props and set.

If I am on stage and need to sleep, a blanket and pillow can go a long way to making it look and feel cozy. If I need to feel rejected by a loved one, fingering a returned ring or souvenir can do most of the work for me. I can be more immediately mysterious, precocious or shy if I have a hand-fan to play with.

Half-mask characters insist on having real things to interact with…

Offer a mask a drink with an empty hand and they may think something’s wrong.

Point out a painting on the fourth wall and they begin to seriously worry.

Pay them back with mimed money and it could be a personal outrage.

But give a developed half mask a stuffed animal, for example, and the intense personal connection, attention to detail and discovery of its history can be incredible.

Masks want to have relationships with everything because that’s how they explore meaning.

I remember a scene in a hat shop where an improviser played a manikin. The mask was enchanted (and later aroused) by the “fake woman” modeling the hat. The scene went on but the mask wanted desperately to understand and relate to the frozen person.

Another scene in full mask was set in a restaurant. Black folding-chairs were put in front of them with another chair as a table. The setting was so uninspiring that the masks stood up for the whole scene. I’m not sure they ever saw the chairs and not even the audience felt like it was a real restaurant.


What About Mime?

Mime is an invaluable skill for improvisers. We should all continue to improve our technique and belief in this art.

Some companies to their credit become experts at embodying and manipulating things that aren’t there and it can be magical. They become the basketball, a beating heart, the moon. They leap in and out of time and place and build characters out of more than one person.

But usually Impro is all just talk and the pictures formed in the heads of the audience members remain dull and grey; mere sketches of the portraits, paintings and sculptures they could be.

Often manipulating invisible objects is better than having the real thing: consider an iron, a stereo, a laundry line or soap. But how do you mime sunglasses, a poster on the wall, ugly shoes, or a tattered teddy bear with one eye?

Actually great mimes can do all this and more and we need more of them improvising!

The rest of us need to be honest about the level of mime we have and should produce our shows accordingly.


Integration of Real Things

One solution is to give players things to play with. (Imagine asking a kid to mime their toys. No fun.)

A few items and some raw materials can turn into a whole world of stuff and can symbolize so much more. An object like a cane can be a cane in so many situations: an old woman, a high-class man, a school punishment, a tramp’s stick.

The more general the item, the more things it can become. A piece of cloth is actually a scarf, water, a scabbard, turban, rope, blindfold, hammock…

Whereas in film we need a real office, in Impro if we have a desk and a swivelling chair, we can imagine the rest. A person putting their face into a frame on the back wall becomes a better portrait than a real painting. On a full-mask, the whole face is frozen but we can still see it move.

For me, theatre is collective make-believe. It happens in one of the most unreal, manufactured and manipulated environments yet we search for any reason to believe it. We are craving to have magic pass before us, to be transported into fancy or empathize with real human frailty. All we need to do is agree on the rules and the journey begins. But the audience can’t go alone. We need to lead them along.

It could be fine to declare that trees cover the stage but if there is one actual tree on each side, then our job is simply to fill in the forest. Or what if an improviser stands like a tree? And how about if she/he is wearing green or their hair is standing at different angles? Now the trees can have feelings the child in us always imagined they did.

Put a mask on a person and it’s often pretty convincing. Put some hair over the top and that bit of integration can make it look real. If they turn to the side we may then lose the illusion as we see the mask’s edge and part of the player’s face. Cover the edge with a scarf and the magic returns.

Abandoning physical resources makes demands on the audience and players. Much improvisation labors to verbally define who and where we are at the top of a scene. You can often see improvisers in their heads working to clarify the base reality. But why make that a focus when the real goal is to make things happen in the relationships?

Put on a wig and be the grandmother, hang fake grapes in the vineyard for the migrant workers, or grab the riding-crop as the sergeant-major then get on with the scene! No longer in your head, trying to wave away the fog, you’re blessing the scene with some clarity off the top. And the pressure is off the improviser to always establish something from nothing. The task is shared with other players laying the scene and providing a foundation.

Scenes that focus on the discovery and creation of the characters and scene itself can be inspiring but most of the time we would like to get to the drama between characters.

Scenic devices can be effective and save time in that regard.

We should give the audience clear and satisfying “Who, Where and What” so they can focus on the “How and Why”.

Force interaction. Define status relationships then shift them. Set up social or family hierarchies then shatter them.

It is no use that you have “scene painted” or spent time physicalizing a great character if nothing happens.

I like having visual elements consistent and constant for the audience then we can work on the skills of how to add drama to them.



Most of us have a few characters that we can easily and convincingly embody. When challenged to find others, our minds get blocked and we don’t transform or we slip back to our limited repertoire. I believe the reason is that it is too difficult to conjure something from your head. It becomes and intellectual task and lacks inspiration or produces nothing at all.

In the exercise where you change a mimed object into new mimed object, if you stare at your hands or off into the distance, nothing will come. But if you begin moving your hands, the mind and body will automatically pick up on what is already being formed and the new object arrives easily.

Experimenting with physical centers, extreme body positions, voices or faces, so long as they are truthful and substantial, can lead you quickly to wonderful and surprising new personas.

If you have a wig or hat, a heavy coat or tight vest, thick glasses or false teeth, it becomes easy to enlarge the feelings they suggest into movement, voice and character.

Chaplin didn’t work on or invent The Tramp. He arrived fully formed when the costume was first put on.


Dressed for the Occasion

Even what an improviser wears as their base is important for character building.

Seeing black bodies in a black space with black blocks seems awfully bland to me. It over-taxes the audience’s imagination and limits the visual detail they might conjure.

Let’s say an improviser comes to the show wearing a casual suit jacket. If he plays nobility, my mind turns it into expensive fabric. If he is a bum, I see it as a shabby, donated layer to keep him warm. And he can interact with it to help me further connect to the transformation. The Count brushes off lint and adjusts cufflinks while the street urchin turns up the collar and wipes his nose on the sleeve.

I believe it is easy to take things that have meaning then apply other meaning to them. It is difficult however to take something with little meaning and make it significant.

Plain or monochromatic tops and black pants say nothing unless you greatly manipulate or cover them. A retro shirt and cool shoes or a stylish top and light scarf at least give our minds some raw material to work with.

Improvisers who look correct, coiffed and corporate, will have more trouble leading us to a place of madness, meaning and misadventure.


Some Examples of Impro Design

The National Theatre of the World improvises in the style of a playwright. They play and even travel with costumes from the general period and settings that the writer uses. They may even have a set, several settings or furniture on stage tailored to define the world of the play.

Some groups coordinate with theatres that are producing plays and arrange to improvise using their stage set on the evenings that regular performances have their days off.

I saw David Gaines solo show of The Seven Samurai. It wasn’t improvised but is a good example of an elegant and powerful design choice.

The show was performed on a blank stage but the actor wore a mask for the hero and one for the villain. He was very physical and played dozens of different roles throughout. For this artist, the power and symbolism of traditional Japanese masks were an important element so he found a simple and efficient way to include them. His base costume was a white martial arts uniform. The front of the jacket was loose enough that he could hide both masks inside yet tight enough that they didn’t fall out and couldn’t be seen. When it was time to become one of the main characters he delicately grasped the mask inside the jacket then slid it on his face with one hand in the act of turning around. He emerged completely transformed, played the role then changed back in exactly the same way.

“The Theatre Machine”, the first touring Impro group (in the 1960s) in Europe, used to rub long balloons in their hair and stick them to the walls of the stage before a show. From time to time during a scene the balloons would slide down or even deflate and fly around the room. (They were barely tied so that there was maximum chance of accidental deflation.)

Imagine the effect or symbolism a random event like that has on a scene. A scary scene could become comically terrifying or a love scene could achieve pathos if the improvisers use the offer properly.

At times balloons were taken down to use as sticks to beat servants with. (Still more chance of deflation!)


Portable Sceneography

My advice to groups who would like to incorporate design into their shows is to get an old suitcase or small trunk, (something small enough to be carried on public transport?) and fill it with some dynamic costumes and props. The more vintage or hand-made the case is, the better.

You want to have items that show up in many scenes as well as stuff that can transform. Here are some ideas:

  • A hand-fan
  • Fake flowers
  • A cute stuffed animal
  • A skirt
  • A long coat
  • A variety of hats/glasses/scarves/ wigs
  • Cloth of different colors/tablecloth
  • A sheet or blanket
  • Small pillows
  • A stick
  • (Nice) plastic cups
  • An umbrella
  • A roll of black tape (for moustaches)

Leave some props in the case and hang costumes at the back/sides of the stage or on coat racks.

Try to keep things visible for easy access.

Having colorful things hanging to the sides can make for nice decoration and it signals to the audience that we are going to tell stories and make believe.

If there is space behind or off the sides of the stage, put things there too.

Another other way to make the room look welcoming is to have lamps, nice chairs, cushions or plants on or near the stage.

I also think it’s a great idea to bring to the show your own personal kit of inspiration. For example: glasses, masks, moustaches, soft hats, teeth, and perhaps a few small props and puppets. You always know where these items are and can keep them handy, (even in pockets) for quick access.


The Sofa

One of the simplest and most effective additions to Impro show design is to put a sofa on or near the stage. For theatres lacking backstage space or wings it can be difficult to manage the sofa when it is not in use but there are solutions like: cover it with a black cloth, stand it on end, have players/host sit on it, or even call your show “The Sofa” and use it in all sorts of different ways.

For me the main advantage of having comfortable furniture is that it changes the behavior of the players.

When a character flops on the couch after a long day at work, the player doesn’t have to ‘act’ relieved and comfortable. Just the act of lying down and letting out a groan of gratification contrasts greatly to the talking heads that have likely dominated the show.

Psychologically, a sofa represents the personal and the sensory much more than black boxes and folding chairs.

It is difficult to play a teenage slumber party, in a boudoir or Roman dining chamber, for example, without soft things to laze around on.

If furniture like sofas, armchairs and beds are not available, solid color blankets or cloths and a few pillows can quickly transform chairs into something similar (but not nearly as good).


Design Dangers and Other Advice

Having “stuff” available for a show does not ensure it will elevate or improve the Impro. It depends which items one has and how they are used.

Artificial/plastic/silly costumes don’t often transform a player and they can encourage gags.

Beware of too much costume-silliness in general. Best not to put a Rasta wig on an old lady or a tutu on the babysitter. Enough fun contrasts and surprises will happen just in the process of throwing something on quickly and leaping into a scene.

Not every scene needs costumes, props and/or extreme characters.

Playing furniture and animating objects too often can distract attention from the story.

It is possible to establish a physical setting then let it dissolve away to rest in the minds of the audience.  A scenographer could become a statue in a fountain, spray water out of their mouth then slip to the side and let the characters take focus.

Design is a good tool to add variety to a show. If we haven’t had much to look at for a while, visual elements become very welcome. If the show is intellectual, a disguise or change in appearance can release something primitive or mysterious in the players.

However if we have seen lots of physical locations, props and costumes then an imagined setting, in description and physicalization has power once again.


In Short…

Props and costumes are not a requirement but we should look for ways to skillfully include them because it can improve our Impro.

When there are players dedicated to helping scenes look real and inspiring, that support gives confidence to the ones who will go on the journey within the scene.

Visual elements can speed up and clarify the setting of a scene.

We can concentrate on the How and Why, be affected in a more truthful way, and create more kinds of magic.

Through design we get something tangible to focus on when feeling stuck in our heads.

All improvisers know what it means to feel “naked” on stage and that is an important experience to have. But if actual stuff can ground us long enough for the fright or embarrassment to pass, perhaps more and more creative discoveries can be made.

A scared improviser is more likely to talk about feelings, describe emotions, or worse, rationalize why they are not affected at all.

Real things we have in our hands can transfer to our hearts.

Then we talk less and feel more.


An Infusion of Theatre

Despite the proliferation of commercial shows designed to give us short-term gratification in the form of light comic cruelty and titillation, Impro is maturing.

Integration of personal material from the audience, multilayered storytelling and great actor sensitivity can be seen these days, taking Impro shows consistently more towards the world of theatre.

But there is still more to discover in that regard.

Even though Shakespeare would describe in rich detail the setting, surroundings, and mood of many scenes, words were not his only tool.

There were trap doors, pillars, balconies, and curtains too. Fully costumed bears, fairies, royals, musical minstrels and many more strode on and off the stage.

All these elements helped to take the spectators on a ride from their own lives to other times, other worlds and safely back again.

I believe Impro needs a doorway into drama as powerful as this and design style can help.

Let’s offer the audience tangible things on which they can hang their stories.

Provide food for the senses, fuel for their feelings.