From my troupe's own experience, the game Props isn't one of our strongest suits. Props is an audience favorite, earning fame on Whose Line is it Anyway? for the wacky one liners. However, when my troupe performed it, the interpretations were forced and both the performers and the audience were uncomfortable. One of my favorite games, Shopping from Home, which is not played often enough, involves the performers making use of props, too.
When discussing improv with others of the craft, some will show great disdain for the use of props onstage, while others will "I mean, I don't think it's bad. Like, props are helpful. I mean, I never made like, an opinion..." about it.
So what's the deal? Personally I love props. It's like Space Jam. Where the improvisers are the Toons and the audience are the NBA real guys, and the props represent our connectivity to their world. Using props erases the divide between performer and audience by helping them connect and focus on the game. When you play games where the purpose is to take a normal, very real object, and call it something else (like in Props), or take a very useless object and try to sell it (like Home Shopping), it's like a mgic trick! The audience gets to see and experience what you do all the time to fake objects (manipulate them to your description) to a real object! So, why shouldn't that apply to scenes, too?
However... On the flip side... I recommend everyone go give this short article a read. It's what first gave me the initiative to consider Props or No Props. The author makes a terrific point, arguing that the use of props in scenes means that the performers and audience will tend to focus on that object. Unlike what I said, the article claims that bringing in real world objects pulls the curtain on Mr Oz, so to speak.
But they also say that props can be used well in long form as long as the performers do their part to not make it the focal point of the scene. And I think that's where I go full circle. One of the biggest issues my troupe faced when we tried to play props is making the actual prop the focal point. We saw a book as a book. We called it a book. Instead you use props to draw inspiration. It's simply another suggestion, however much more physical.
Someone once told me the best improv scene ever performed would have to be done buck naked in space. Some people think props aren't true improv. Many think that the best, truest scenes will come from the least interference from the outside world. The cleaner the slate, the more it was up for manipulation.
And while I hope none of us are shedding our clothes for a scene, I do want to know what you think. Props, or not? If so, why? Do you think using props, whether in games or in scenes, is not "real" improv? I know I don't. Leave a comment below and let us know!