Costumes In Improv: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly



Since weekends tend to be very busy for me with shows and workshops, I often try to make Monday a day off.  With that in mind I’m going to be a bit lazy for today’s entry.  Instead of writing something wholly original, I’m going to dust off an old piece I wrote about the use of costumes in improv.  My inspiration to post this piece was not actually laziness, it was player Gary Weston’s awesome portrayal of a dragon during Saturday’s ComedySportz match.  And to the past!
                             .           .           .
During a recent show I saw a very inventive use of costumes during Dance Party.  In this game players make up dances based on random words suggested by the audience.  Two players showed a ketchup dance.  One player used a trench coat and other items to portray a bottle while the other player used a large red scarf under a coat to show spreading ketchup.  The resulting effect was clever and fun.

So I thought I'd talk a little about costume use within improv.  It's a subject that sometimes evokes strong opinions.  Some performers decry any use of costumes while others believe that costumes are near essential for certain games.

My feeling is that costumes, while not needed per se for improv, can at times add nice accents.  That being said, I think it's also very important that performers never rely on costumes.  Any given improv scene or game should be able to stand on its own with or without costumes.  For example, during that same Dance Party, a third also dazzled the crowd with a costume-less owl dance. 

Over the years I've seen two main problems resulting from performers relying on costumes.  First, they sometimes put less effort into the other key components of character creation, e.g., voice, emotion, posture, etc.  Second, I've seen players delay entry into a scene because they wanted to put on a costume.  Such delays have caused awkward pauses or worse, bare stage moments.

But with careful use, costumes can be a fun, extra component though which the performers can express their ideas and delight the audience.  Character centric games like Advice Panel and Dating Game are particularly costume friendly.  I've been amazed at clever uses of simple costumes to simulate historical outfits, animals, objects, cartoon characters, and more.  Costumes can also be helpful for scenes featuring a specific genre or historical period.  And certainly some genres and/or games like Shakespeare or Gibberish Opera are natural fits for costumes.

Costumes also seem to make many audience volunteers less nervous in games like Foreign Movie and Gibberish Opera.  I don't know the psychological explanation.  But for some reason most audience members relax more when outfitted with a fun costume if they have to perform in an actual scene.

Finally, a few thoughts onchoosing costumes.  I've found that generic pieces are often more useful than specific items.   For example, I've seen our very large silver poncho become armor, a cape, the outside of an anthropomorphic appliance, and much more.  Likewise, a tan trench coat has doubled as a book, camel, bottle, dirt road, etc.  By contrast, a loud plaid jacket would have relatively limited use.  Generic pieces are also good because available space for costumes is often limited.