Improv Sandpaper



In this post I’d like to talk about a term I often use when I teach workshops: “sandpaper”.

It’s a metaphor, and it refers to the following: if you rub sandpaper over your skin, you’ll get a painful, burning sensation. It is impossible not to feel the ache of a sandpaper burn.

I would define “Improv Sandpaper” as “a truthful ouch-situation”, i.e; a situation in which the audience cannot help but feeling a character’s “ache”. By ache I mean a wide variety of emotions, such as emotional pain, embarrassment, humiliation, disappointment, delusion and so forth.

For those of you performing theatrical improv (i.e. improv not intended to be comic) such situations are probably expected, but I’ll argue the use of sandpaper in more light-hearted improv as well.

We start with a scripted example to illustrate what exactly I mean by the term “Sandpaper”. and then I’ll explain the application to improv, both for theatrical improv as for comedy-oriented improv.

Scripted Example: Dr. Todd

While writing this post (a post here typically takes me several months, and I work on several posts in parallel) I was scratching my head to find a great example. End of the summer I was watching a rerun of the British TV series “Green Wing” and there it was. This is a particularly great example because Green Wing is in the first place comedy: the script features absurd situations, like the head of the hospital HR department walking a camel through the corridors); politically incorrect and obnoxious characters, like dr. Secretan, a plain MPC; Joanna Clore, head of administration who is abusive to her staff and constantly, publicly embarrasses her lover dr. Statham, who himself is openly racist then it comes to Lyndon, the hospital’s IT guy. All these insults and embarrassments are intended to be funny (and they are if you’re in that kind of comedy). Bear with me why this is important.

Now consider Dr Caroline Todd, a constantly embarrassed character who always finds herself in uncomfortable situations which often she unwanted creates herself. 99% of the time these situations are funny. Take for example the night she’s in the bathroom at a colleague’s apartment, and can’t manage to flush her number 2. Embarrassing, funny , but cardboard. These situations are gimmicky and won’t touch you as a viewer. Save for either make you laugh (if you’re into that kind of stuff) or make you cringe (it you’re not into that kind of stuff). In either case you are disconnected from the characters themselves.

However.  At a certain point in series 2, we have Caroline and Mac, a fellow surgeon with a big mane of red hair. These 2 characters have been attracted to one another from the start, but – obviously – something always comes between them. At the end of series 1 they got together, but then Mac had an accident which caused amnesia so he doesn’t remember actually being her boyfriend. At this point in the story it seems like the 2 of them are close to being a couple again. And then Holly shows up at the hospital – she’s a pretty girl, Mac’s ex-girlfriend who he broke up with 5-6 years ago.. Holly is clearly flirting with Mac, to Caroline’s horror; but Mac is not interested.  One night Caroline is invited to at Mac’s place for a romantic get together, she’s got a key because Mac is working a bit late but should be joining her shortly. Caroline installs herself on the couch, beautiful lingerie and all, ready for Mac to arrive and their relationship to start off for real.

But when Mac leaves the hospital he runs into Holly, who has a 5-6 year old kid with her, her son, it so turns out. The kid has a big mane of red hair, and Holly introduces her son to Mac as “Meet Mackensey”. Bombshell: Holly was pregnant when she & Mac split up, and Mac has a son! They both agree they really need to talk.

Caroline, on Mac’s couch, is happy to hear Mac arrive, and then shocked to see Holly with him as Mac explains he’s sorry but he really needs to talk to Holly tonight. Caroline rushes out – barely clad – and he final scene of the episode is Holly installing her on Mac’s couch, pulling a bottle of red wine out of her handbag.

Ouch. This situation is beyond funny-embarrassing. To me it felt like cruelty by the writers: poor Caroline. The viewer can actually feel her pain. This was purposeful intent by the production team: whereas most other embarrassing situations in the series are teamed with upbeat (award winning by the way!) soundtrack, this situation gets different, more dramatic underscoring.

That’s what I would call a sandpaper situation, or – using a verb – “the Caroline character got sandpapered”.

Creating Sandpaper

There are 2 ways of creating sandpaper situation

Simple Sandpaper

The first is setting up situation that would always be emotionally painful to just about any character. Here’s an example I saw in a performance by Hic Sunt Leones  (Kelly Agathos & Pierpaolo Buzza): the scene featured 2 students who knew each other,  perhaps friends. The Pierpaolo character had been at a party the night before, and the Kelly character informed whether Mark had been there. Pierpaolo confirms and Kelly starts questioning Pierpaolo about Mark, implying she has been on a great date with Mark and is developing a serious romantic interest in him. When she flat out asks Pierpaolo whether Mark had mentioned her his answer something like: “Yeah he said you were a good lay, but he had plenty more girls to bang”.

Anyone would understand that any girl hearing something like that about herself, certainly from the mouth of a love interest, would be absolutely devastated. We do not need elaborate backstory about the Kelly character in order to feel her pain.

As a result, such simple situations can be used in either improv short form games, or formats that rely on short scenes, think an Armando or more general montages.

Elaborate Sandpaper

Setting up a situation like the Green Wing example above takes more time. That is because making the sandpapering truthful, you need a lot more backstory about the characters, in particular the protagonist, which is most likely the subject of sandpapering. This is perfectly doable in narrative long-form formats. But it will only work if the audience clearly understands what fundamentally matters to a character. That brings us back to Character Driven Narrative which I have written about before.

The Importance of Truthfulness

Sandpapering only works if the receiving character reacts truthfully. Imagine dr. Todd in our Green Wing example to simply accept Holly’s appearance by saying Hi and sure, no problem, I’ll come back some other time, have fun the 2 of you. That would undo the importance of the whole situation. And it would not make sense, given what we know about the characters.

Even worse would be a jokey or gimmicky dismissal of the gravity of what happens to the character – that would negate the whole situation. If you have, in an improv show, constructed as much backstory as sketched here for the dr Todd character, why would you want to throw that effort away?

So if you play a character that gets sandpapered, by all means react and react truthfully! A sandpaper situation is usually about something that is fundamentally important to a character. Being hit there simply must provoke a reaction, usually a big one. Tears, shock, anger, flight reflex are all possibilities.


Let me get this straight first of all: it is not a priori important to put a character in a painful or embarrassing situations. However, if you can make your audience feel a character’s ache, that’s a sign you have managed to create real, believable characters that the audience can empathize with. Obviously, that need not be your particular goal; if you are merely shooting for laughs you probably won’t care about this (and that is perfectly fine – nothing wrong with going for laughs). Personally, I do care about this kind of empathy.

Ergo, the fact that you’ve managed your audience to empathize with your character’s “pain” is a sign you have succeeded in creating a real, believable character, not a cardboard character. So sandpaper is not a goal, it’s a result.

Use in Theatrical Improv

If your goal is not to go for laughter but performs something more theatrical, it is foremost important you know your characters.

Anyhow, there are 2 ways to go about sandpaper in theatrical improv. You can “create” sandpaper off the bat, which is what happened in the Hic Sunt Leones show I mentioned earlier. That is kind of in you face, and it has 2 advantages.

First off, the audience does not need to know much about the character. The flip side is that the sandpaper needs to be such that is would truthfully apply to just about any character – which was the case for the Kelly character in the example.

A second advantage is that both audience and players exactly know what the performance is about. In the example it’s going to be about how the Kelly character deals with the fact that her love interest merely considers her to be a POA. How does she deal with the humiliation? How does she deal with the disappointment, knowing that her love interest is not reciprocal? How does that change her? It might drag her down, perhaps she’ll unconsciously accept and enlarge that and start using men the same way she feels she has been used?  Or perhaps it will make her a stronger woman? Perhaps it will make her change her opinion about men in general? Or perhaps she will learn to get attracted to different types of men? Anyhow, the character will react – strongly – to what happened and it will change her. That’s the meat of the performance.

A second way to go about this is to build up to sandpaper. That implies taking the time to get to know the character, and then the sandpaper situation can be tailored to the character.

That said, I see plenty of theatrical improv where characters sigh, discuss deep feeling, be generally miserable, and still I am not affected as an audience member. Usually this is because of 2 reasons:

  • The audience does not know enough about the character to understand why the character should care about what’s going on. Which leads to the audience not really caring for the character; in that case whatever happens to the character will likely not touch the audience.
  • The character’s reaction to what is happening to it is not truthful enough. This sometimes is related to the acting skills of the player, but not always.

A couple of comments here: a character simply stating what is important does not make that believable. A character stating “My book shop is the thing dearest to my heart” does not necessarily make it so in the hearts of the audience. We need to understand a bit more about the why.

Secondly – and a bit of a side note – theatrical improv need not necessarily dark – nothing wrong with a performance about “love of your children for example”.

Use in Comedy Improv

Sandpapering definitely has its place in comedy improv. Perhaps not so much if you are performing short form game handles, but definitely in narrative and pattern-based improv.

Narrative improv is about stories and stories are about what happens to characters. Sandpapering is a sure way to truthfully affect a character, and what happens to the character as a result, is bound to be a compelling story in its own right, if played truthfully.

Pattern-based improv is the term I like to use for “finding the game” improv. Think formats such as Armando, in which we look for what is unusual about a scene, and turn that into a heightened pattern. The principle can be applied to free-form montage-like format as well. To see how sandpapering might work in those kinds of approaches to improv, reconsider the Green Wing example. There are actually many patterns (or games) going on throughout the show, but “embarrassing dr. Todd” is one of them, and mostly these humiliating situations are funny. The Holly situation is an absolute height, and it’s far from funny. But impact-wise it is more powerful than the preceding humiliations.

We do improv to have an impact on an audience. Sandpapering is one way to do that. It’s not the only way, but a fun and interesting way. Try it out. And let us know the results!


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