A Brief, Incomplete Case for Space Work


Buster Keaton

Some improvisers call it “space work” and others say “object work.” Mimes call it miming. But whatever it’s called, it is easily the most under-taught and under-utilized improv skill. (I say “space work” because it’s what my teachers usually called it. But also, we are trying to create a space, not just objects.)

If I had to assign numbers, I’d estimate that 50% of improv scenes use no space work at all, and about 45% use limited and sloppy space work — leaving a mere 5% of scenes that give space work the full attention and skill it deserves.

Here are a few practical reasons we should drill our space work and miming skills more often:

1. It’s Real

If one of our goals in an improv scene is to be believable  and it usually should be — we must use space work. IF we don’t, we cannot be totally believable. We might get close to believable without using our physical skills and gift, in much the same way Los Angeles is “close” to the moon compared to Neptune.

A quick story to illustrate: Last week, globe-trotting super-troupe PGraph asked me to perform with them in their weekly Friday night show. This was a big deal to me. It’s akin to a newly trained accountant being asked to handle the Jenkins account. The Jenkins account is always the biggest account, ya dig?

Halfway through our show, I found myself lying in bed with a girl. Our bed was two chairs, set side by side. We sat in them, our legs straight out ahead of us, leaning back. Pretty much what you’d expect.

But I felt comfy, and thus, I felt free to say to myself, “Try to nail your space work in this scene.” That became my objective. Normally, my objective in a scene is to “make sense of it” or “find and heighten the game.” Space work isn’t my first, second, or third thoughts while improvising. Usually.

This night, it was. The talky parts of improv? Those, I have down. It’s the movey and bendy and mimey bits that I always, always, always need to give attention.

So I did. My “bed space work” was pretty damn on point, I must say. I slowed down. I committed my whole body. In fact, those are two pretty solid tips if you want to improve your space work in general:

1. Slow down.
2. Use your whole body.

2. Space Work is Funny

I am sometimes so fucking sick of words. Why limit ourselves only to the humor found in words? Why say funny things when we’re capable of doing them?

Think of a movie that’s really funny. Think of a moment or two from that movie that really had you rolling. I’m 99% confident that one of those moments was primarily, or at least mostly, physical. It wasn’t a funny line — or, at least, it wasn’t merely a funny line. It was a funny line combined with a perfect look, a perfect move, a perfect interaction with the environment.

Here’s one of my favorites. Steve Martin’s work as Ruprecht in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels 

More proof: There came a moment in the PGraph show when my character accidentally crushed a tiny fairy, which had been represented by Roy’s two fingers on the stage floor. He was using his hands to create a tiny stick figure, and I crushed her!

But then, Roy uses his other hand to mime the arrival of a tiny ambulance, there to pick up the tiny crushed fairy.

This sublime digression lasted about 15 seconds, was almost completely nonverbal, and it got the largest laugh of the night by far.

3. Space Work Slows You Down

Even if our space work is super fast — which it is, it is, I promise it is — using it still gives us time to slow down, reassess what’s happening in the scene, and make a more thoughtful offer.

Imagine if we reduce our space work’s speed by 50%. Half speed gives us even more time to sink into the scene, to find its pulse, to make a great offer.

I notice that space work often gets sped up — sometimes to the point of being abandoned altogether — when there’s a small audience. I think this is because when the crowd is lighter, we improvisers become eager for laughs. We loathe a silent room, and we yuck it up for the few heady souls brave enough to watch us.

4. It’s Only Fair!

We’re asking a lot from an improv audience.

We’re asking strangers to pay money to watch us make stuff up — no props, no set, no fancy lighting or music cues. Just human bodies talking and doing.

If we’re going to treat our audience like they’re scholars — which we must insist upon, even when they are mostly absent and mostly humorless — we should show them the world we’re inventing. The audience can learn only what we’re willing to teach them. So we gotta teach them with our hands, our legs, our eyebrows, and our pelvises — not just our pithy wordplay.

Imagine if a fancy Hollywood make-up artist was told to create 1,000 unique zombies for a new movie, but is then told she can use only three colors because of budget cuts. Three colors out of thousands! That’s not too fair.

Similarly, improvising without at least a thought about space work is denying yourself some pretty awesome tools to create comedy.



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