“M” is for “Mugging”

“They [improv players] must be concentrated, listening, playing truthfully and honestly, playing off the actions and reactions of others. They must be able to create a reality out of nothing.”

Lynda Belt and Rebecca Stockley, Acting Through Improv: Improv Through Theatresports. New Revised Edition. Seattle, Washington: Thespis Productions, 1995. p.1


The most prevalent form of Mugging takes the form of performers staring and smiling out into an audience as they are – at least in theory – also actively engaged in a scene. It evokes images of young performers peeking out from behind the grand drape as the performance occurs, checking to see if their loved ones are present and enjoying the show. Only on the improv stage there isn’t generally a grand drape and this form of checking in occurs in full view of the company and audience. This habit resembles its improv kinfolk – corpsing, commenting and breaking – and is typically the nervous manifestation of a performer seeking approval or anxiously taking the temperature of the house. On the surface it can appear as though the performer is cheating out, assuring that they can be seen or heard; but in practice muggers are reducing the effectiveness of their work by draining the connection to their characters and the onstage action. Subsequently, as is the case with the related terms above, this improv technique is invariably problematic and should be avoided as it takes away more than it adds in all but a few instances.

So, noting that this tool is generally inadvisable, here are some of those few instances where mugging might actually serve the greater improv good that are worthy of mention…


Player A, a bullish security guard in a department store, approaches a hapless customer (Player B) with a disproportionate sense of aggressiveness…

Player A: “I need you to show me the contents of your bag.”

To be continued below…

When Is a Mug Not a Mug…?

1.) When it’s an accepted convention. I tend to assume a representational style of performance when I imagine modern theatrical improv, but there are certainly historical and contemporary traditions that celebrate a more presentational approach, such as period and style-infused pieces, street theatre, or interactive modes. In these cases, overt breaks of the fourth wall may, in fact, be part and parcel of the event. Shakespeare’s fool, Moliere’s maid or Commedia dell’arte’s servant are all more than likely to connect to the audience in such a fashion with a knowing look, eye roll, or perhaps even a more protracted aside or soliloquy. These devices are woven into the very fabric of such genres. This is also the case when characters are deliberately lightly worn in a Brechtian or Boalian fashion so that the performer’s point of view is present alongside that of the character they have assumed. In these cases mugging is no longer a distracting actor habit but rather a dramaturgical tool, stylistic nod, or theatrical weapon.

Player A: “I need you to show me the contents of your bag…”

Player B, representing a marginalized societal group that is often berated by oppressive capitalistic mouth pieces, turns to the sympathetic audience and rolls their eyes in recognition of the injustice about to play out…

2.) When it’s a tip of the hat. There is also a recognized tradition of “tipping your hat” in some modern improv circles. This phrase refers to acknowledging an improvisational slip, finesse, or perhaps even an easy laugh. In some ways this is an after-the-fact equivalent of “calling your shot” when an improviser frames a particularly noteworthy improv move beforehand. A “tip of the hat” consists of a brief pause in the onstage action that playfully winks at a clever or silly move. Some schools even explicitly include the hat tip gesture – imagine you’re a Dickensian street vendor acknowledging a passing member of nobility, if you will! In these playful moments the offending player (or successful player depending on your point of view) lets the audience know that they recognize the folly that they have just committed. After this brief shared moment of collective appreciation the prior action resumes relatively unhampered by the self-aware metatheatrical lull. This derivative of mugging is less likely to find a home in heavier or more dramatic pieces seeking fidelity or verisimilitude, but can add joyful whimsy in less august environments.

Player A: “I need you to show me the contents of your bag…”

Player B: (with an exaggerated and ribald air) “And I need you to show me the contents of your head…”

3.) When it’s a deliberate critique. I’d also advocate a mugging variant in moments when it feels appropriate (if not outright necessary) to address something awkward or problematic on stage. This connects with the improv concept of Speaking Your Truth or calling it onstage when something that is unfolding is creating unwarranted discomfort or injury to you, your fellow improvisers or the audience. Players may inadvertently be perpetuating harmful stereotypes, punching down rather than up in a mean-spirited fashion, or over-simplifying complex issues in a way that further marginalizes. In cases such as these it can prove helpful if not critical for the audience to see that the company understands what it has done or is still actively doing. If an older company member has been endowed as a grandparent for the umpteenth time in an evening, or a foreign player’s accent has been used once more as the butt of an easy joke, or a teammate has been cast as the “beloved” or “object” without any agency yet again, looking to the audience in commiseration will often land as being wholly warranted and appropriate.

Player A: “I need you to show me the contents of your bag…”

Player B: “So, just because I’m young you assume that I’m here to steal something…?”

4.) When it’s a teacup.

The author tips his hat…

Final Thought

One could fairly argue that the exceptions I have listed above are quite different than a run-of-the-mill mug where an improviser gormlessly breaks character to look into the audience. As is so often the case with improv and art in general, context and intent are everything. These exceptional examples all may look the same as a nervous glance seeking approval, but in reality they are functioning in a much more complex way reinforcing stylistic traditions, playfully acknowledging unforced errors, or adding complexity to stale tropes. Mugging, after all, is just another improv tool and it is not so much the tool that is at fault, but rather whether or not its owner is deploying it from a place of solipsistic panic or informed strength.

Related Entries: Approval, Commenting, Corpsing, Gagging, Speaking Your Truth, Wearing Your Character Lightly Antonyms: Cheating Out Synonyms: Breaking

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Asides (or you can just review the Game Library in general by going here.)

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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