“W” is for “Where”

“The ‘who/where/what’ discipline helps to remove these anxieties [of uncertainty and discomfort for the actor] and these blocks. It gives the performer a reassuring and familiar structure within which to operate, and it also insists that the creativity keep within the logical bounds of the initial idea. It’s another way of taking pressure off, without losing genuine spontaneity.”

Anthony Frost and Ralph Yarrow. Improvisation in Drama. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. p.127


While Where serves as the last letter of CROW and, for me, the final “W” in WWW (I say who, what, where), scenes suffer significantly when this element is sidelined or the last to meaningfully make it to the stage. Even if a scene has thrived with a riveting relationship and palpable objectives, the absence of an equally colorful locale will often trap the improvisers in a nowhere land or talking heads dynamic in which action is almost purely psychological or verbal. A well-chosen and well-crafted where provides literal and metaphorical doorways for discovery.


As the lights fade, a flurry of improvisers strike the remaining set pieces from the prior scene and quickly strategically place a few blocks and chairs in a provocative configuration. When the lights once again rise, the action is already in motion…

Where It’s At

1.) Keep location front of mind. Though it’s not ideal, inattentiveness to a relationship or objective can typically become addressed later within a scene, thereby resolving any unhelpful ambiguities or vagueness. Due to the physical nature of our settings, it’s difficult to adeptly and unobtrusively tend to location elements after the fact if they have been ignored for too long. When players have wandered all over the stage space and then suddenly decide to place an imagined (or real) table in the middle of this void, it will feel jarring and contradictory. If your staging vernacular includes actual set pieces, I’d advocate making bold placement choices as the lights are transitioning into focus. The best-case scenario is that all of these elements will frame and inspire action; the typical scenario is that at least some will provide opportune details; and the worst-case scenario is that you’ll end up with a talking heads scene with a few chairs scattered around it which is at least a little more interesting than a talking heads scene on an empty stage! The same philosophy holds true for mimed pieces and space objects. Commit to creating these scenic additions as soon as you can so that they can then add detail and context to your story without denying prior staging patterns and audience imaginings.

2.) Define your staging norms. In venues with a “poor” aesthetic that primarily rely on pantomime and imagination to paint epic environments, it’s common practice to just have a few chairs or blocks that can be used to assist. Generally, it’s wise to use these as weight-bearing pieces as opposed to strictly decorative elements. Especially if you’re moving quickly from scene to scene or game to game, struggling to arrange those cubes in a particular configuration to represent a table or counter or refrigerator that just “sits there” rarely adds much value and can just stall or actually prevent action. You can’t safely overturn a table in a fit of passion when it’s actually a clump of heavy blocks, or reach into the sink on a counter that is a solid mass, or open the approximated refrigerator in any meaningful way… Oftentimes, such pieces also impede sight lines and make swift transitions or cutaways all but impossible. Even if you perform with a “richer” aesthetic, I’d also caution against adopting an overtly sumptuous approach for the same reasons, although if you’re one of the few fortunate venues to deploy dedicated improvising scenographers this makes grander but flexible stage design possible on a whole new level. Once the audience has seen and learned your in-house practices, they’re likely to happily accept how you frame your theatrical reality, so just seek consistency.

3.) Beware a mix and match hodgepodge. After establishing your design rules and vocabulary, be aware that accidental inconsistencies don’t disappointingly dispel your ornate creations. If you’ve constructed an imaginary prop world and someone then whips out their actual cell phone, this will seem peculiar and probably take everyone out of the carefully crafted reality for at least a moment. You also can’t put that real phone down on any of the imaginary set pieces that populate the space, which just compounds the awkwardness even further. I’ve constructed shows where nothing was mimed, formats when only costumes and major set pieces were real, and others where essentially everything was imagined into being. There’s obviously no one path, but it’s helpful to have some internal logic that everyone buys into or at least a collective company understanding that breaking the design norms of location is a big move. If one real prop suddenly appears in an otherwise pantomimic world, that one prop becomes extremely important (whether that was your initial intent or not!) Use such an out-of-the-box and powerful move with care and thoughtfulness.

4.) Go big first. I also reference this technique in my companion game post as Spolin provides fantastic setting guidance with her “three large objects makes a where” approach. The short and sweet summary of this philosophy is that most familiar locales can be effectively communicated to your fellow teammates and the audience through the careful creation and use of three substantial set pieces (as opposed to hand props). For example, if I first mime a sink, I could be offering up a wide range of possible locations: a paint shop, a gas station restroom, a Winnebago… When I add a second major element – perhaps a wall-mounted microwave – the range of options narrows: a mom-and-pop restaurant, an office break room, a dorm room… A third thoughtful addition often provides enough of the puzzle to more confidently assess the greater intent: a luxurious king-sized bed now likely puts us in a hotel room, while a full-sized refrigerator might suggest a family kitchen. When you go beyond the basic “what” of each furniture piece and explore its unique qualities, the communicative potentials multiply tenfold.

Final Thought

I’ve explored hidden potentials lurking in the greater extended environment and the gifts of smaller space objects in prior entries. These additional tools augment the “big picture” first approach discussed above that offers a strong foundation on which to build and play. When we give location its due attention, our settings can delightfully become well-rounded characters in their own right, igniting technical and musical choices, exerting status and personality traits, and assisting or thwarting the desires of the onstage personae. Improvisers need not find themselves and their characters restrained by those two ubiquitous black chairs resting against the back wall.

Related Entries: Character, CROW, Environment, Levels, Objective, Space Objects, Stage Picture Antonyms: Talking Heads Synonyms: Location, Locale

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Zones

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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