My current improv passion is space work. Space work is the business of creating a physical world onstage, primarily through mime and movement.
The problem with 90% of space work is that it’s terrible. And terrible space work—hell, even mediocre space work—can destroy everything else happening onstage. Bad space work is a constant reminder to the audience that this is all make-believe.
Meanwhile, really good space work can improve any scene by one billion percent. It helps the audience suspend their disbelief. And it adds to the spectacle of the production. Not to mention the fact that it can impress the hell out of everyone.
Probably space work’s most recognizable manifestation is the famous:
POURING OF A DRINK!
How many scenes involve a character moving to a corner of the stage, opening a refrigerator or cabinet, and grabbing a drink? The answer: a lot. A lot of scenes include the pouring of a drink. I think this space work happens a lot because (a) characters often get thirsty and (b) it’s a simple, common activity that is pretty easy for the audience to recognize.
In one of my earliest improv classes my teacher, the all-pro Shana Merlin, talked about a scene she was directing that highlighted the power of good space work. Two characters were talking, and Shana told one of the improvisers to make a drink. The player moved downstage and opened a dishwasher, pulled out a glass, and proceeded to pour some water.
See the cleverness? Instead of mindlessly opening a cabinet, the player took a glass from an invisible dishwasher. That’s a thoughtful move, one that is not only true to life (I’m terrible about emptying my clean dishes too) but also deepens the physical reality and says a little something about the character (i.e., this is a character who doesn’t empty the dishwasher). Shana pointed out that in improv, all too often our worlds are perfectly organized—far more than they are in reality. In improv, the glasses are all perfectly lined up in the cabinet, the door handle is always a simple knob, the car always drives smoothly and without any gear shifting, etc.
Except, of course, that’s not the case in real life.
I took a workshop a couple of months ago from improv super-group Three For All. The portion of the workshop dedicated to space work was led by Stephen Kearin—which is a bit unfair, considering how lithe and compact and classically trained he is. Kearin moves through the world like a Bob Fosse understudy, and so trying to emulate his space work is a daunting challenge.
Space Work Exercises
Kearin put us into pairs…
“I want one of you to pick up a flower,” he said. “Now, hold the flower like you would actually hold a flower. Feel its stem, its leaves, its petals. Smell it. Delicately run your finger across it. See it.”
We did this for a full minute, which is an extraordinarily long time to mime holding a flower.
“Now, hand the flower to your partner. Partner, I want you to play with the flower. Watch each other closely. Watch your partner’s precise movements. Focus on the details.”
Once we were done with the flower, Kearin had us pick up a series of objects—a locket, a coffee mug, a gun, etc. Each object received equal attention. We handed them back and forth. We set them down, we picked them up. And once we’d shared about a half-dozen objects, we went backward through them again, ending up holding our original flower.
“Feel the weight of the gun. Feel it. Open up the locket, slooooowly. Look inside. React to what you see there. Run its chain along your palm. Let it dangle from its chain. Drop it into your partner’s open palm. Feel the temperature of the coffee mug. Is the mug hot but the handle cold? What’s in it? How full is the mug?”
It was a revelatory exercise, thanks mostly to Kearin’s ongoing commentary—which usually boiled down to one key piece of space work advice:
SLOW DOWN! SLOW DOWN! SLOW DOWN!
Slow waaaaaay down with your space work. There’s no rush. The audience isn’t in a hurry. They’d much rather understand what the hell you’re holding then to see you scurry to the next bit of dialogue. In fact, if you speed through space work, the audience will become distracted or confused, and they’ll remain that way even as you launch back into your (oh-so-clever) conversation.
And when I say “slow down” I mean: just when you think you’re moving slowly enough, cut your speed in half. You’re probably still going too quickly.
It will feel awkward at first. You’ll feel like you’re operating at a snail’s pace. But don’t worry, it looks just right. There’s this strange time-space continuum gap between the performer and audience: what feels slow to you seems perfectly normal to the audience. So slow down, way down.
Keep the word “deliberate” in mind. Make all of your moves deliberate, whether walking across the stage or twisting a screwdriver or changing a lightbulb. Make each movement intentional.
We humans are remarkable at conserving our movements, and doing as little as possible to perform an action. Every activity we mime onstage can be deconstructed into a series of discrete steps. You don’t just pour a drink; you open the cabinet, you select a glass, you open the fridge, you reach inside, you grab a pitcher of water, you pull it out, you place it on the counter, you place the cup on the counter too, etc.
Pay attention to each of those steps and give them their due.
For example, if you’re rolling a cigarette, you have to:
1. Reach into your pocket
2. Pull out your bag of tobacco
3. Open the bag
4. Reach into the bag
5. Pull out your set of rolling papers from the bag
6. Set the bag aside (on a surface!)
7. Pull out a single rolling paper
8. Arrange the paper in your palm so it can be stuffed with tobacco
9. With your free hand, open the bag of tobacco
10. Grab a clump of tobacco leaves
11. Sprinkle (evenly!) the leaves across the paper in your palm
12. Brush your free hand against your shirt to brush off any lingering tobacco leaves
13. Use that free hand to delicately grab the paper/leaves in your fingers
14. Move the paper from your palm into your fingers
15. Use your newly freed hand to carefully grasp the opposite end of the paper
16. SLOWLY begin to roll the cigarette
17. Once rolled, use your lips to seal the paper
18. Twist the ends a bit
19. Reach back into your pocket
20. Pull out your lighter
21. Place the cigarette between your lips
22. Flick the lighter and bring it to the cigarette
23. Inhale as your hold the flame against the tip of the cigarette
24. Return the lighter to your pocket
25. Take a good long inhale
26. Use your fingers to pull the cigarette out of your mouth
28. Pick up the bag of tobacco
29. Stuff it back into your pocket
30. Continue to smoke the cigarette
That’s 30 steps. THIRTY! For what is seemingly a simple act. Now, of course you can continue the scene as you perform these thirty (or so) steps. In fact, you should. And this is where space work reminds us that improv—good improv, anyway—requires all of our focus. We need to do this cigarette rolling while staying connected to the other plays onstage, the scene, the plot, the characters, all that good stuff.
And I think that’s why so much space work is bad—because, understandably, players have a difficult time focusing on multiple things at once. If they work to do solid space work, they tend to abandon the scene or their scene partner, and vice versa. And because someone talking to us onstage seems more pressing than anything else, our space work gets sloppy or disappears altogether.
Which is why it’s so critical to teach space work early in an improviser’s education, so that it’s not considered an afterthought or cute bonus; but instead to make it as critical and fun as talking.
Space Work No-Nos
When I start teaching improv (in 2014?), I’ll not only address space work early, I’ll also begin by providing this list of Space Work No-Nos—i.e., things you’re never allowed to do in an improv scene:
2. Not closing doors.
Whether a front door, a cabinet, or a refrigerator, you’re not allowed to open a door without closing it.
3. Entering an ongoing scene from nowhere.
The sidelines of a stage do not count as “somewhere.” Your character is arriving from some other place, and unless it’s another part of the same room, you need to show us where—often by opening a door or something.
4. Walking through objects.
This might be my biggest personal pet peeve. There is nothing worse than taking the time to create an object onstage—perhaps a dinner table—only to have some other character walk right through it. The audience notices, and it makes what we’re doing seem less like professional theater and more like play time.
5. Bad car work.
This one continues to challenge me. I’ve probably gotten in and out of a car 100,000 times in my life, but I never think about it until I’m forced to mime it in an improv scene. Like everything, practice makes perfect. But the big things that drive me nuts is when (a) people don’t open the car door correctly, (b) treat the steering wheel like a DJ treats his vinyls (they don’t need to move that much!), and (c) when people walk through the hood or trunk. Cars are bigger than you think.