Creating environment and props out of 'thin air' [Space Object Work]

Go to an Improv theater show and you'll most likely see a bare stage.  Maybe the stage will have a couple of chairs and that's it, no props and no costumes.   If an actor wants to do a scene in a car, he or she will set up two chairs, pretend to open the car door and step inside.  He or she will sit in the chair, hold onto an imaginary steering wheel and pretend to drive.  The audience will get the idea and play along.

In typical theater, an actor holds up a stick, and you make believe it’s a sword. In magic, that sword has to seem absolutely 100 percent real, even when it’s 100 percent fake. It has to draw blood. Theater is “willing suspension of disbelief.” Magic is unwilling suspension of disbelief.   ~Teller

It's true, the audience will believe just about anything...if we make an effort.  You don't have to paint your face white and study mime...but you do have to help the audience pretend.  You just need to do the obvious things.  If you make believe that you're sitting in a car, then you probably should open the door before you stand up.

This video shows how most improv actors make believe with imaginary objects.  It was produced by Sally Smallwood and directed by Chris Besler...and if very funny.  It does however remind us that if we want the audience to believe we're in a car when we're really just sitting in a chiar, we need to act as if the chair was a real car.


Here is a tip given to me many years ago by a well know improv actor in San Francisco.  We were talking about creating objects with mime and he said, "I'll show you how I deal with that stuff in a scene.  Let's pretend we're doing a scene and you hand me cup of coffee or something."  I started a scene on the spot and said, "hey Frank, I've got that cup of coffee you wanted."  The other actor said, "thanks".  He took the imaginary cup from my hand, turned to the side and pretended to place it on an invisible counter.

Leaving his hands empty...again.

Yeah, that'll work too.

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.

Cheating for success with space object work


The lights are going down, your mind filled with "hits" from the suggestion, you have a few seconds until "lights up" and you have to start this scene. A few minutes later the lights come down, the audience is applauding and you and the other players are basking in the glow of another fun and playful scene. What happened in between?

Sometimes a scene of 1-2 seconds is perfect to change things up. There are the 7-8 minute epics that just find life and flow with ease. And, somewhere in between, there is the "average" 3-5 minute scene.

Once you get the suggestion you head out confidently and start seeing the world this scene is in. Slowly interacting with the space object world. We are now 25% done with our average 3 minute scene! There was no effort at all.

What has happened so far?

  • slow space object work that is engaging and fun to watch (entertainment)
  • you have clearly defined the place for your partners - what a gift
  • you gave yourself and your partners 30 seconds of time to think
  • perhaps no talking yet if we are really lucky and the players trust each other

AND, if you are calm and slow magic has happened!

The magic comes from creating something from nothing in a way that the audience sees every detail. It's the moment of recognition that another player comes and joins that world when nothing has been said.

One of my students recently admitted to me after a scene that they had cheated! It was a great scene, so I asked what cheating meant. They replied that they didn't know where the scene was going when they started just kept doing the space object stuff until something happened.

I told them if they can learn to make it a habit of cheating like that, they would be a great improviser.

What do you think?

How long can you do simple space object work before it's too much?