Space Object Objective


When you enter a scene look at what your partner is doing and ask:

  1. What's my role in that activity?
  2. Are we heading for a goal or doing an ongoing task?
  3. What is going on with us while we do that activity?

We know from CROW that objective is an important part of a scene that needs to be established at the beginning. It can help define who you are, where you are and what's going on. Most of the time objective means  "What does your character want?" and the best ones involve the other character "What does your character want from the other character(s)".  Your objective playing poker might be that you want to intimidate the other guy into giving you the information but the improvisers can agree on the space object objective of playing cards together while they talk.

The dialogue should be about the characters, relationships, and story - how often do you talk about the dishes when you do the dishes at home, right?

I think there is also a 'space object' objective for the scene that comes in one of two flavors - a mutual goal to be accomplished or an ongoing task that is sustained. Both of these let everyone clearly know how to interact and you can keep that up for the whole scene.

Mutual goal

Just like in our real lives, we engage in activities toward completing an action that is defined. It's an easy way to start a scene and everyone can get on the same page with trying to complete the activity by the end of the scene, but not earlier. Sure, sometimes you won't make it, but for the scene you are all on the same page playing your role in accomplishing the goal.

Some examples:

  • Washing dishes
  • Folding laundry
  • Packing a suitcase
  • Setting up camp
  • Making the bed

Ongoing Task

We spend our lives talking to people while other things happen, sometimes for hours.  These actions can happen for the whole scene and be the backdrop for everything that happens. But it keeps the characters in their world, and adds "life" to them.

Some examples:

  • Playing cards
  • Putting together a puzzle
  • Knitting, sewing
  • Peeling endless supplies of potatoes in the army

Space Object Work in 2 simple rules

water glass

I've listen to the words coming out of my mouth again and again and each time a student listens and adjusts, the class has an audible reaction of delight. It's plain to see from the outside and difficult to create as a habit. Space object work is the improv term for creating the world, set, props, and environment for the scene. Since we don't use props, it means we have complete freedom to use anything in our imagination. The problem is we need to communicate that to the audience.There are plenty of subtle nuances in this work. You can study mime, clowning, even yoga would be helpful. But if you boil it down to two simple ideas that handle 80% of the workload, then for me those are:

  1. Leave space in your hands
  2. Go slow

When you touch, move, or interact with objects it's often using your hands. There is a reason that oposable thumb sets us apart. Leaving space for the handle, glass, mouse, etc in your hand looks real as opposed to a closed fist.

If you pair that with slowing down to give us time to see the details, you give the appearance of real objects. It feels much too slow, but stage time moves much faster than real time especially for newer performers.

The key test is to practice with real objects - pick up a glass and take a drink, then try it with space objects. If you use a real glass the way most improvisers drink in a scene - you'll end up all wet.

KJ7 - Enjoy the silence


[INTERIOR: WAITING ROOM] - Lights UP! A man is sitting reading a magazine slowly turning the pages. The sound of each one is all you can hear until the rustle of his pants as he crosses his legs. A woman enters the room and sits right next to him, uncomfortably close. He looks up and back at his magazine trying to ease away from her slightly without being obvious. She exhales with a snort of indignation and stares at him, her face getting closer and closer to his and she says in a low voice....

This summer working with Keith Johnstone we did scenes starting with 20 seconds of silence followed by one character saying something to change the other. Those first 20 seconds were riveting to watch "nothing" happen. However, there was so much that was in that "nothing". Watching as an audience member I created stories about each character and small traits and gestures took on great meaning - it was engrossing.

The audience is not passive, they are searching for the "reason"

- Keith Johnstone Aug 2009

For the players, these scenes with silence gave time to relax and have "nothing" happen. It was 20 seconds just listen for the offers that were there - a shift in position, crossing legs, a slight glance of eye contact. Then a small bit of dialog (5 seconds) and another 20 seconds of silence.

Nothing, nothing, nothing, something!

- Keith Johnstone Aug 2009

This was a shift for me to think about breaking scenes down to smaller slices of very present, in-the-moment focus. For those short periods, listening, connecting, acting, and focusing on what was already there was easier because it wasn't for a whole scene - just this short part of one.

It's so easy to rely on being wordy, but so rewarding to let go, slow down, and enjoy the silence.

KJ Series - Notes from Keith Johnstone work in August 2009


William and I had the opportunity to work with Keith Johnstone and many wonderful improvisers in August 2009.  We captures lots of notes, ideas and inspirations from all of this work and are sharing these ideas in a series of posts.

Each post is labeled KJ for Keith Johnstone because that was the inspiration for the work.  We did our best to capture what we could and any quotations, misquotes, or variation is certainly our understanding from the work and done with the intention to be accurate and convey the meaning.

Look for more posts coming in the days and weeks ahead.

We would also love to talk to you more about all of this work. Please post a comment below, or say hi on twitter!

KJ5 - Quiet mind or LOUD mind


Notes from Keith Johnstone retreat, August 11, 2009Can you to stop your thoughts for 1 minute?  Try it now - just sit, breathe and don't think. I'll wait... How did it go? Unless you have a daily meditation practice, it can be very hard to quiet your mind. That's normal for most of us.

Now try the opposite. Pick a nursery rhyme or line from a song you know well - something like "Bah Bah Black Sheep". Repeat it and raise the volume of your thoughts until you are screaming those words over and over in your head for 1 minute (don't say the words out loud). 

Both of these exercises are the same in one simple way. It changes the way we look at the world.

"If we stop the verbal thinking, it's the same world but it's a much more interesting world." -Keith Johnstone


When you begin Zen meditation practice you count your breaths. The counting gives you a focus so you notice when other thoughts have come in to distract you. Eventually you leave the counting and focus only on the breath. With some practice you can quiet your mind and become more aware of the world, notice things your brain normally blocks out.

By mentally screaming "Bah Bah Black Sheep" you can disrupt your typical verbal thinking. If you can do this loud enough you can drown out your other thoughts and even make it difficult for you to speak. Try to say your name out loud but never stop the mental phrase. Don't pause to quickly say the words out loud, say them at the same time.  It may take a few days of trying.

By now, you might be thinking "I thought this blog was about improv..." Here's where that comes in. The technique of mantras used by meditation experts and can be used by actors.


"It is abstract, not your objective. It's  just used to change the flesh" -Keith Johnstone

Try playing a scene by mentally repeating "I love you" or "I hate you" as a mantra. It will change what you look like, and how you deliver your lines. Just because you are screaming "I love you. I love you. I love you" in your mind, that doesn't meant you should be in love with the other character. In fact often the opposite is true.  Try thinking "I love you" but to keep away from your partner.  Or, use "I hate you" and want to make them yours. This is similar to playing "covered" emotions like anger covering up the lust in a Jane Austin play.


The point is to distract ourselves from our thoughts, not give time for fear to enter our minds, and give our brain a break. It is similar to being hypnotized or entering a trance state. Athletes call it being "in the zone", psychologists and business people might call it "flow", you might have experienced it when "time just flew by" while focused on a project. This can happen for an actor in being deeply in a character or when a performance feels effortless.

"Once you distract your mind, automatic systems start taking over." - Keith Johnstone

Try walking down the hall without thinking about how you walk. Most likely you will no longer be doing "your" walk, but some other self-aware walk. Mantras can help you act  in a calm way out of instict and not analytical thought. This will produce characters that move naturally and in a human way.