We often go through life using stuff without thinking about it much, because it’s all muscle memory by now. We know how to walk down the sidewalk without having to mentally concentrate on left foot, right foot. When we stir a pot of soup, we don’t think about how we’re holding the spoon - we just grip the spoon and stir, with the spoon-y part in the soup and the handle-y part in our hands.
Since we often don’t stop to quietly observe our everyday movements or everyday objects in real life, it’s suddenly a challenge when we’re learning improv and trying to mime real objects in a scene. At first our movements are a bit generalized, cartoony, or vague. Part of it is cultural: we learn that certain general movements are symbols for certain things. For example, holding out your pinky and thumb to your ear and mouth signifies talking on a phone, pointing your finger and sticking out our thumb is a hand gun, etc. We do the same thing when we’re first being taught how to draw: we’re told as toddlers that a circle with two dots and an upwardly curved line is a smiley face. A triangle on that face indicates a nose. Add some more lines and you’ve got a person. Add some long hair and a pink bow and a skirt and it’s a girl. Add some short hair and a beard and some pants and it’s a boy. These are just symbols and we know this is not how the world actually looks. As we grow up we may become more sophisticated in our generalized drawings: maybe a circular head becomes a more oval-shaped face, complete with eyebrows, almond-shaped eyes with exactly 10 eyelashes each, bow-shaped lips, etc. But as new improvisers, just like new artists, we have to break those habits and learn to observe what is real and right in front of us. This requires mindfulness.
After typing that last sentence I had this inner critic imagining someone rolling their eyes and saying “What the heck is mindfulness? Don’t give me any new-age BS.”
Mindfulness is simply having more attention on your sense perceptions instead of your thoughts and judgments. So, technically, it’s a state of mindlessness, but without the negative connotation.
This state of mind is what you should use when you practice mindful object study to improve your improv object work. It’s the same state of mind that my art teacher in high school was teaching us how to do, but it was simply called Looking or Seeing. We were taught not to draw what we thought we saw (no more smiley faces with triangle noses), but what we actually saw. Some folks really struggled with this, and others really got it. I picked it up pretty fast and I remember feeling a change in the way I was operating, but I couldn’t describe what it was back then. I realize now it was the first time I had noticed a state of mindfulness or meditation in myself. It’s not magical, new-agey, or some special plane of existence that only certain chosen people can have; it’s available to everyone. You just have to keep working at it and you learn how to turn it on. To repeat an often repeated simile, it’s like riding a bike. Once you learn what mindfulness feels like, you know when you’re doing it.
I suggest that you purposefully set aside time for mindful object study on your own as you use everyday things, or perhaps get together with fellow performers and have some regular object study time together. Just like a new artist learning to see, get yourself into the mindfulness state by observing an object (preferably something that doesn’t have any writing on it) and just look at it for 5 minutes in silence or with instrumental or classical music in the background. Try to really look at that object and go beyond any thoughts or labels you have for it. Notice it’s shape (or perhaps multiple shapes), the negative space around it, the colors, the textures, the shadows. Then pick it up and start using that object as you normally would, and feel how it moves and notice how your body moves with it. Do it in front of a mirror. Set that thing down and try to mimic how you were moving with it. Then bring that new learning to your improv scenes and see what happens.
The hardest part for any new improviser is to get used to carrying on a scene and not drop the object work. Just keep going. It will start to feel natural as you practice. The relationship you have with your scene partner is still the most important part. The object work is the special sauce that makes the scene even more flavorful.