Actors and Performers


Introducing... The Improv Illusionist

The Improv Illusionist is the first book dedicated to physical improv. It reveals why these skills are so important, how to fix bad habits that develop over time and practical techniques for being more physical on stage.

This book features over 50 exercises to help improvisers develop their skills through solo and group work. Instructors will also find notes and tips for teaching physical improv. Improvisers of all ages and experience levels will learn how to:

* become more playful through exploring physical activity;
* eliminate miscommunication with other players by adding precision to object work;
* get new ideas for scenes by exploring the environment and activities;
* develop an eye for real-world detail and how to reproduce it in improv;
* add more visual flair to scenes;
* stay safe, both physically and emotionally, in shows, rehearsals and classes.

Even the most seasoned improv performers often struggle to be more physical, so this book fills an important niche in improv actor training.

The excerpt below offers a peek into David Raitt’s writing style and into the ‘science of mime’ accompanied by an exercise.


The Science of Mime

So, how does the improv illusion actually work? Why does moving your hands in certain ways cause people to see you throwing a ball, or eating a sandwich?

There’s actual scientific research into this, courtesy of Chaz Firestone, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. He’s studied how the mind processes the “implied objects” created by mimes. In his study, he filmed himself colliding with an actual wall and stepping onto an actual box, then had those objects removed from the video so that he appeared to be miming these actions. After each of these clips, subjects were shown a black line, either horizontal or vertical, that matched or mismatched the orientation of the surface that had just been mimed. They were told to ignore the mime and just answer as quickly as possible if the line was horizontal or vertical. Firestone’s team found people’s answers were significantly faster when the orientation of the line aligned with the mimed wall or box. This suggests that they couldn’t help seeing the mime, even if they were told to ignore it.

I’m sorry if all that has your eyes glazed over. The one-sentence version is that mime appears to exploit a biological perception process—our brains “see” implied objects automatically. This is very good news, because it means there’s no “secret trick” to mime. All you have to do is provide enough specific, recognizable detail to trigger recognition of the object. Once observers know what the object is, their brains will take over to create the illusion.

Your job is to understand how to communicate this detail, and know when to add more if needed.

Object Interactions

Let’s think about [Viola] Spolin’s classic Play Ball exercise. Everyone understands how to “throw” and “catch” an improvised ball, so it’s a good one for breaking this down.

Play Ball

Players stand in a circle and agree on a size/type of improvised ball, then toss it among themselves. Focus on consistency—keep the ball the same size, shape, and weight at all times. The coach can call out instructions to change the properties of the ball.

What do you notice about how people move with the ball, and how does this relate to “seeing” it?

In passing the ball around, most of us experience moments of feeling like we see a real ball. Something about the way a person moves connects to our visual senses. But what did they actually do?

The remarkable thing about mime is that you can never show the object itself—it’s invisible and will always be so. It’s your interaction with the object that reveals it. Here’s a list of common characteristics of a ball and example interactions that communicate those details:

  • Shape. I can balance any size ball on my open palm, but by curling my fingers or adding another hand, I show you how big it is.
  • Weight. Even an inflatable beach ball has weight. By using different speed and effort in moving my arm, I can show how heavy the ball is.
  • Familiarity. Even though it’s possible to pass the ball in different ways, a familiar throwing action is easier to read than, say, bouncing it off my elbow.
  • Energy. Intensity of motion. Think of how you might toss around a tennis ball vs. a priceless Fabergé egg. How would you throw and catch a burning hot coal?
  • Attitude. How important is it to me that you successfully catch the ball? I could pause to make sure I have your attention. Or I could carelessly toss it without even making eye contact.
  • Direction. The ball will travel in the direction I move.
  • Grasp and Release. I close my hand around the ball to catch it. I open my hand to let it go. Release also connects to Direction—the position and angle of my hand when it opens indicates which way the ball travels.
  • Tracking. I can track the ball movement with my head and eyes.
  • Consistency and Permanence. Everyone handles the ball in the same way, and it doesn’t change over time. If we put the ball down, we retrieve it from the same place later. This is how we agree with others’ physical offers.

Most of these interactions are instinctive. You don’t think of them when doing object work, and you don’t have to. I’m just illustrating how much information our natural perception picks up. When you realize how much detail your movements provide, you can find ways of adding more to make improvised objects seem real.

Depending on the object, some interactions will be more powerful than others. Grasp and Release is a big one with the ball. If you don’t open your hand, it doesn’t matter how much you wave your arm. To the observer, you’re still holding the ball.

Tiny details can easily trip up your object work. If your movements don’t match our understanding of the common properties of an object, the illusion breaks. We may still understand the concept of what you’re doing, but we don’t see the object. Or sometimes we might see a different object than what you intend.

Notice how many interactions are related to movement of the arms and hands. These are our body’s main tools for interacting with the world. As such, you can only communicate some details through your fine-motor mobility—curling your fingers a certain way, for example. This does make object work a challenge for improvisers with mobility issues, but it’s not impossible. Interactions for Tracking and Energy don’t require fine-motor skill but still contribute to the illusion. (In Chapter 8, we’ll look at other less physical ways to show objects.)

If you struggle with object work, you can use this information to break down your movements and think about what’s not working. However, there’s a much easier, more natural way to practice interactions. And that is . . .

Muscle Memory

It seems obvious that, by studying the details of physical reality, you can reproduce them more easily in your object work. So how is it that we handle objects all day every day, but still have trouble when showing them through mime?

Most of the time, we don’t think about the actions it takes to hold a physical object. Think about how you’re holding this book right now (or the electronic device you may be reading it on). You curve your fingers a certain way. Small muscles in your hand and arm keep it from falling. Or maybe you’re balancing it in your lap, which positions your legs a certain way. You tilt your head toward the book to read it. Your eyes move along these lines. You turn the pages with a specific combination of movements.

If I took the book from you right now, could you continue all this as if it was still there? Of course you could. You could remember how your body feels, and keep reproducing that. Paying attention to this muscle memory is all it takes to improve the clarity of your object work.

This is easy to practice.

Muscle Memory

Grab any small (real) object that’s within reach. How does your arm move to pick it up? How do the fingers curl around it? Is it heavy or light? Do you have to grip it hard to lift, or do you have a light touch? Let go and notice the release. Pick it up and put it down a few times to notice how it feels. Try it with different speed and energy. Think about what changes and what stays the same.

Notice also that some objects have connected movements. When you drink from a cup, not only does your arm move, your lips do too, and so does your throat as you swallow. These connections are often the A-level specifics that create an illusion.

Now try those same motions again without the object. See how easy it is to reproduce the detail?

Another good tip is to try this in front of a mirror. Knowing what your movements look like to an outside observer helps train your performer’s “third eye.”

You can practice muscle memory all day long, with anything and everything you touch. Drinking coffee. Working at your computer. Putting on a sweater. Notice what the movements are, and then take a few seconds to repeat them without the object. It doesn’t take much work or time to greatly improve your object handling.


The Improv Illusionist: Using Object Work, Environment, and Physicality in Performance is now available via