“P” is for “Physicality”

“…improvisation, if it does extend knowing, does so because it unblocks inhibitions and prejudices, encourages participation and learning to take responsibility, enhances observation and body awareness, and develops verbal, tactile and other physical skills – it makes use of the whole body as a resource of channels of sensitivity and response, intelligence and insight, expression and articulation.”

Anthony Frost and Ralph Yarrow. Improvisation in Drama. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. p.163


There are many rich and historical movement practices that provide highly physical examples of performed spontaneity, such as contact improv, mime and the wide array of clowning traditions that have appeared across multiple cultures and time periods. In North America, at least, modern popular improv doesn’t always fully exploit Physicality and, left to its own devices, can become a little intellectual, static or ponderous. Needless-to-say, this is a shame as such heady tendencies undervalue the incredible communicative potentials of the human body. I consider space objects (props) and conjured locations elsewhere, so here I would like to muse on the ways that we can increase our sense of playful physical abandon when it comes to the site of character.


Two nervous soon-to-be adoptive parents (Player A and B) wait anxiously in a small official office. Both players sit, and then sit, and then sit some more…

Tactics for Increasing Your Physical Vocabulary

1.) Mimic or parallel. If you consider yourself a little less equipped or inclined to add physical energy to a scene there is no shame in observing and using the choices of more body-centric players as a source for inspiration. I would offer this as one of my favorite forms of parallel action as it tends to add volume and energy to a scene that might otherwise prove unhelpfully stationary or mundane. If Player A gets up and starts to pace the room out of a sense of nervousness, Player B can certainly stand and perform a similar dynamic in their own character-specific way. If Player B picks up a magazine from a coffee table and starts to idly flip through the pages, Player A can certainly benefit from grabbing a magazine or something else as well – perhaps a brochure, a child’s toy, a box of handkerchiefs… Such choices have the added benefit of defining the location in greater detail while also providing characters ways to reveal their feelings and subtext through behavior as opposed to merely announcing or cartooning these contributions.

2.) Change your center. Some actor traditions deploy the concept of a character “center” or a physical source from which energy or movement emanates. If you typically just stand as some ill-defined version of yourself, changing your physical lead or center will quickly unlock new movement potentials. I’ve explored this concept with or without adding emotional energies and both approaches have clear merit. Player A may process their nervousness predominantly through their finger tips, rolling their fingers on the arm of the chair, constantly adjusting their clothing, or scrolling through screen after screen on their cell phone. Player B could utilize aggressive shoulders that jut them into the space, causing sharp posture adjustments or a tendency to expansively consume the room. If you’re playing in an overtly comedic style, taking on unexpected leads can inspire dynamic relationships or portrayals: how do panicking feet, judging elbows, or lustful nostrils influence the world of the play? In more subtle genres this approach has equal merit although you might elect less overt or peculiar manifestations.

3.) Apply an essence. Another way to jolt yourself out of your habitual movement qualities (or lack of movement altogether) is to assume a physical essence as a foundation for your character. There’s really no limit as to where you might look for inspiration, although animals (fox, eagle, hamster) and environmental qualities (cloud, fire, stream) work uniquely well as they innately suggest ways to move as opposed to items that are inherently more static (brick, book, cup.) Essence work invites both verbal and movement based adjustments as part of the fun is holistically embodying your perception of your inspirational source: what does a fox really want, how might such an animal use their words, where in the room would a fox prefer to wait? If you find greater comfort in your verbal play be wary that your application of an essence doesn’t focus exclusively on the language components – as tempting as this may be – but rather risk exploring the movement qualities as well. Essence work can also quickly create dynamic and unanticipated relationship energies. What might transpire in the scene if Player A has taken on a jaguar essence while their partner Player B explores that of a deer?

4.) Add an idiosyncrasy. In some ways this is just another iteration of the well-worn improv advice to do something specific and then use this as a doorway for future behavior and scenic choices. Characters can tend towards the mundane when we do not create or embrace anything uniquely peculiar about them. These personae peccadillos may be organically discovered (Player A just straightened a magazine so now leans into this choice) or more consciously inserted into the action (Player B continually twirls their wedding ring between their fingers.) It’s possible that such embellishments may remain small and serve primarily to add specificity and color, but if they are heightened or featured they can also provide the first move of more significant games or story elements. Is Player A worried that their need for organizational perfection will cause issues with a new child in the house? Does Player B’s fidgeting eventually reveal that they raced somewhat reluctantly into this marriage in order to increase their attractiveness as potential adoptive parents?

Final Thought

Thoughtful movement can do much to increase the vibrancy of our stage work and characters. What may start as a rather obligatory effort to add some staging or character flair can quickly evolve into a more central or formative element of the scene if it is given sufficient love and space to grow. For those of us who are movement hesitant, sometimes it is really as simple as challenging ourselves to make one out-of-the-box physical choice as an improvisational leap of faith and trusting that this will lead to others and greater comfort overall.

If you’re intrigued about other helpful strategies for enriching your character movement toolbelt consider reading the entry on Character linked below.

Related Entries: Character, CROW, Game of the Scene, Space Objects, Verbal Skills, Where Antonyms: Talking Heads, Telling Synonyms: Movement, Showing

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Animal Kingdom

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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