“The improvisation is mimed: in this way sensitivity to objects is renewed and many objects can be conjured up without the encumbrance of a single real object.”Jacques Lecoq, The Moving Body. [Le Corps poétique] Trans. David Bradby. New York: Routledge, 2001.  p.31
Space Object work refers to the craft of creating imaginary or mimed props and set pieces on the improv stage. It is, admittedly, a rather peculiar term when you stop and consider it – I think it was Viola Spolin who coined this particular phraseology that has since taken root in many performance circles. Improvisation’s delight and frequent reliance on imaginary set elements – as is also often the case with related clowning traditions – requires improvisers to give some thought and attention to how they summon an endless array of theatrical accoutrement from thin air. Props that are imbued with detail and finesse will add much to the improvisational endeavor; those that are only roughly approximated or carelessly abandoned will quickly degrade the magical spell that can so enthrall the audience. I think we’ve all cringed with disappointment when an inattentive player suddenly walks through a mimed set piece that was just moments ago so real in our imaginations due to the diligent efforts of a patient performer. Professional mimes and pantomimes literally spend a lifetime honing this craft of making something captivating materialize out of nothingness, but there are certainly some best practices that even those of us who are less physically adept can also exploit in their favor. Here are five…
Player A and B, soon-to-be-parents, are struggling to assemble a “do-it-yourself” crib on the floor of their soon-to-be-born child’s room. Player A, on the verge of giving up, is scrutinizing the instruction booklet one more time while brandishing in their hand the one meager tool the company provided. Player B, equally overwhelmed, has balanced the three-quarters assembled frame precariously on their arms as they catch a breath of air from the overhead fan.
Player B: (with strained patience, but affectionately) “Any new signs of hope in that booklet…?”
Player A: “I know they say a picture is worth a thousand words, but perhaps they could have also included a few words in the instructions as well…”
Mining Your Mime Work
1.) Slow it down. Improvisers with a disinclination towards physical work can compound their ineffectiveness by rushing through any needed mime. I don’t think I can imagine any circumstances where an increased tempo assists in the creation and communication of space objects. This impatient tendency is magnified by most players’ inability to distinguish anxious “stage time,” or how long something seems to last, from “actual time” experienced by the observing audience. The few seconds it takes to slow down and mime a scenic element with care is well worth the energy investment and seldom stalls the action as much as one might fear especially as this contribution is rarely the only thing of interest occurring in the moment. When we savor this physical work we’re also more likely to take into account core attributes such as mass and weight which make all the difference when it comes to believability. Just like those empty coffee cups on a long string of TV shows and movies can take you out of the action, so too can an air-light box strain realistic credulity when a litany of pretend objects are revealed to live inside it.
Player A with excruciating meticulousness slowly unfolds the opaque instruction booklet matching their held tool to each and every image. They glance at the scattered hardware on the floor around them.
Player A: “How do we have so many pieces left over?!?”
2.) Keep everything in its place. In our anxiousness to deploy mimed props players will frequently have the needed item magically materialize out of nowhere at their beck and call. Once items have been hastily crafted they can then become tethered by imaginary elastic: “This cup is in my hand but now I’ve forgotten all about it while I was frantically gesturing, oh, and look now it’s sprung back into my hand now that I’ve realized I need it again…” The figurative and literal step of going to acquire the item from somewhere adds so much to your world building. Placing objects slows you down, creates helpful and rich stage geography, and introduces opportunities for movement, activities and games. All of these benefits are then further amplified when you return the prop to its resting place (or conspicuously don’t) later in the scene. Most companies caution against carelessly combining real and imagined hand props to support this imaginative spontaneous set design: if you pull out your real cell phone and moments later want to set it on the mimed coffee table where you had placed your pretend computer, you’ll have few workable solutions that don’t puncture the established reality awkwardly. A good and common rule of thumb for sparsely produced shows is to only utilize weight bearing pieces – a chair, bench, or bed – so as to avoid unhelpful inconsistency. (Occasionally I’ve deliberately tweaked this rule and incorporated “hero props” that define particular characters or locations of note while leaving other needs purely mimed.)
Player B, still balancing the incomplete crib, reaches out with their free hand to the imagined near-empty glass that they perched on the awaiting equally imagined mattress a few minutes earlier. As they shake the fragments of ice cubes of drinks gone by…
Player B: “You are going to need to get me another ice tea if you want me to continue with this exercise in humiliation.”
3.) Find the unique qualities. Once you feel comfortable with the pacing and placement of common scenic props, a great deal of their value can emerge from making the items a little not-so-common. In the spirit of pursuing specificity, space objects become increasingly dynamic when they are imbued with idiosyncrasies and defining qualities. If the portrait is just inconveniently a little wider than the installing character’s arm span, the toaster lever always requires two consecutive pushes to catch, or the official sterling silver pen never writes on the first stroke, not only have the props become more interesting and memorable, but they are likely to add energy and joy to the scene. Unique props used in this fashion delightfully reveal character subtext and heighten emotions; although, such gifts must be observed, received, and echoed by others as well for such choices to land strongly. A well-crafted item can also open up unexpected plot twists and surprises: if the expensive pen is stolen, repeating the established quirk could reveal the identity of its thieving owner later in the action. If you’re utilizing a collection of similar or identical objects (moving boxes, library books, cans of corn…) a lack of uniqueness can quickly turn a potentially rich activity ripe with discoveries into a carelessly bland pattern that adds little or nothing to the work. Making even just one of the seemingly identical objects just a little peculiar – heavier, dustier, dinted – makes all the difference.
With renewed purpose (but no new ideas) Player A presses the small assembly tool into a series of bolt heads. The tool is clearly too small and unmanageable for their clumsy hands and each belabored effort results in several unsuccessful attempts to use the tightener in a less-than-painful way.
Player A: (grimacing) “If in doubt, tighten everything again…”
4.) Keep your eye (and hand) on the prize. Space objects have a habit of problematically disappearing when they are not actively in use, which makes sense if you think about it as imagined objects are only present when we are consciously aware of them – invisible creations literally vanish when they are not being utilized in some concrete way. While I advise against sticky feet (an inability to find a timely exit once your contribution has landed) sticky fingers, on the other hand (!) is a helpful technique. When players loiter a little longer as they grab or stow an object, keeping it in their possession for that extra moment, space objects benefit from this added attention and are subsequently more likely to retain critical mass. This approach snugs nicely with the above concept of slowing down while adding the lens of careful deliberateness when it comes to those critical moments of introducing, shelving and reincorporating relevant props and set pieces. In most cases, the longer an item is left unattended or unreferenced, the more likely it is to be forgotten or misused. Gently keeping such choices vibrantly alive with sticky fingers and occasional referencing goes a long way towards remedying this improv ailment.
Player B adjusts their hold on the increasingly cumbersome crib components in the futile hope that comfort is just around the corner. They place the drained glass back on the beckoning mattress.
Player B: “OK, three more minutes before I say we turn this into a bonfire instead of a three-quaters crib…”
5.) Build with your friends. And, as is the case with most improv strategies, space objects shine even brighter when they are not exclusively the domain of one player. As an object changes hands from one player to another, multiple characters join together in an effort to move or manipulate a common imaginary set piece, or a late entrance displays the wherewithal to reuse mimed pieces already established by their teammates, the effectiveness of such work exponentially grows. This is doubly so if such moments retain the original qualities of the space objects in question, or playfully upend them in thoughtful ways so that the pickle jar sat on the kitchen counter that one character has struggled in vain to open for hours is suddenly casually opened with a simple twist by their entering younger and more frail sibling. So once you’ve tended to your own physical creation, be sure to join another player by using their mimed offerings.
With a frustrated sigh Player A tosses the instructions over to B and scoots closer to take a turn on holding duty…
Player A: “Here, you give it another look. Everything is starting to look the same to me.”
If mime is new or unfriendly terrain for you consider conducting some first hand space object research during your day-to-day activities. A lot can be discovered by simply breaking down and assessing how you use mundane objects. How do you brush your teeth, wash the dishes, or organize the recyclables? When you then bring these tasks and your own unique habits to the stage – and we all have them – you will be surprised by the delight and recognition they afford.
Related Entries: Environment, Where Antonyms: Real Props! Synonyms: Mime, Object Work, Props
Connected Game: Many Objects