“E” is for “Environment”

“In environmental theater, if scenery is used at all, it is used all the way, to the limits of its possibilities. There is no bifurcation of space, no segregation of scenery.”

Richard Schechner, Environmental Theater. New York: Applause, 1994 [1973]. p.xxx


Improvisational theatre often has an extremely porous relationship with the greater environment, especially when performance takes to the streets, revels in outdoor festivals, or commandeers a found or public space. When we consider the where or location of our scene work, we can easily neglect the greater potentials of the Environment that extends beyond the literal or figurative fourth wall of the stage. Bringing such elements to the stage (or acknowledging those that are present whether we like it or not) adds new levels and dimensions to our work.


Two roommates (Players A and B) sit on their apartment couch…

Considerations for Expanding Your Field of Play

1.) Time of day. A conscious choice defining the current time of day can immediately take a scene from a tried and true trajectory into delightfully peculiar territory. Roommates sitting on a couch might typically conjure images of an evening movie viewing or weekend collapse after a long work week. Establishing the scene at five a.m. innately offers other potentials. Perhaps they are both insomniacs, late shift workers or locked in a persistent silence after a full on argument that is finally about to break. Moving the setting in time to a Monday lunchtime might unlock a different set of inspirations. Do the roommates both work from home, are they such good friends that they race back to the apartment every lunch hour just to see each other, or are they awaiting the arrival of a new potential roommate and this was the only time they could all meet? Clearly and quickly leaping to a clear time can also serve as a great gift to your technical improviser if, in fact, such a decision is not prompted by their generous lighting and sound contributions.

2.) Time of year. Selecting a specific time of year can further expand the horizons of your explorations. If the apartment has seen better days and it’s the middle of winter, the improvisers can immediately access a more intense physicality or emotion. It might be autumn and there is a particularly beautiful view outside the living room window, or the peak of summer and the air conditioning unit is broken, or the first gasps of spring with a cool and pleasant breeze drifting through the room… Considering the time of year can have the added value of bringing seasonal holidays and the like to the front of mind as well: have the two roommates just awkwardly and uncharacteristically exchanged Valentine’s cards revealing a level of emotion that now neither knows quite how to handle?

3.) Historical time. And why not focus the work on a specific time period? Such a stance invariably reveals nuances about the greater world that are likely to inform stock choices in new ways. The construct of “roommates” (or, for that matter, “apartment” or “couch”) changes radically as we shift the sociopolitical, cultural and historical frame around it. It’s unlikely that a scene set in the European Dark Ages would replicate the same story as that played in a Singaporean high rise complex of the 1970’s. Similarly, a Bedouin oasis a millennia ago invites different discoveries than a futuristic mountaintop landscape on Kilimanjaro. Add in time of day and year, and you’ve got an even richer tapestry inspiring your path.

4.) Fictitious offstage influences. When you expand you circle of concentration and imagination beyond the elements within reach, other glistening potentials await. Weather provides perhaps the most obvious example of this strategy: if there’s a huge storm outside the apartment of our two roommates this will generally immediately add emotional volume. But you can also apply this concept to a broader array of environmental forces. Is there an incredibly busy street congested with angry traffic just outside the apartment window? Or perhaps an identical un-curtained room through the “fourth wall” where our dwellers can observe (and are observed by) the occupants of an identical apartment? Could the next door neighbors that share a wall be undergoing major renovations that punctuate the action with blaring construction interruptions? Or the characters are sitting in an AirBnB knowing that there is a hidden camera somewhere in the room watching their every movement?

5.) Real offstage influences. Some venues may turn some of the invented ideas above into actual unavoidable realities. If you’re engaged in street performance or a highly interactive style of play, audience interruptions and comments will typically find their way into the developing action. Found spaces, especially those out of doors, will offer peculiar staging options alongside potential weather influences and distractions. Soundscapes can also invigorate or thwart the improvisation as players attempt to incorporate or ignore unanticipated car alarms, wildlife incursions or noise pollution from oblivious passersby. While not all improv modalities equally embrace these real world distractions, there are unquestionably benefits in viewing these moments as gifts and offers that can extend the greater environment as opposed to problems to quickly resolve or ignore.

Final Thought

Improv holds an innate inclination to blur boundaries: between form and freedom, inventiveness and tradition, players and audience (think of Boal’s spect-actor.) When we consider environment, not only can we expand the reach and context of our work, but there’s also a chance to deliberately blur the line between the fictional stage and the real-world spaces that we inhabit. And adding specificity to our scenes is always a good thing too!

Related Entries: CROW, Where Antonyms: Talking Heads Synonyms: Location

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Cooperation/Noncooperation Scene

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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