This video, created by the good folks over at People and Chairs, was a gut check for me.
Part of what makes it so funny is that the woman behaved as though she was putting on a generic, universal sort of lipstick (while we could see the specific color going sloppily all over her face). The man wasn't answering an actual phone he could picture, just some archetypal phone.
The thing is, nobody owns an archetypal phone or universal lipstick. I own a very specific phone and -- well, I don't wear lipstick, but if I did, it wouldn't be the Platonic ideal of lipstick, unless that's what happened to be on sale at Target.
Precise object work may seem like a chore, but it will make your life on stage infinitely easier.
I found the idea of object work intimidating when I thought it was about being an impressive mime. The key mistake here is the word "impressive." I thought object work was there for show, so the audience would understand that I knew what I was doing.
When someone told me that improv is not about impressing the audience, object work didn't seem as important, so I didn't put much energy into it. I put all my energy into being a human being in relationship with other human beings.
Lately, though, I'm realizing that it's pretty tough to be a human in a vacuum. I've got to be someplace, and there are probably things in that place that I can touch.
Jet Eveleth, one of my favorite teachers, doesn't coach you to "do more object work." Instead, she says, "Live in your world. Touch your world."
When I take that note, the whole scene opens up. I don't have to stress about inventing clever things or coming up with the next plot point; I can discover what's going on based on what I see in my world.
Object work isn't mainly about technical precision, but a lack of technical precision is often the result of not really seeing your world. If my coffee mug grows and shrinks with abandon, then sort of disappears sometimes, my scene is likely to be clunky and forced. If I'm only pretending to see my world, you'll have to watch me work hard to think of the next thing. That kind of effort is tiring and ugly.
I don't see and touch my world for the sake of the audience. I see and touch my world because I want to give my brain a break, because I want to make my life easier on stage.