by James Quesada
The absolute best way to get better at Improv is through taking classes, having coached rehearsals with a troupe, and getting on stage. But sometimes doing all three of those things is easier said than done. Stage time can be limited, money can be tight, and organizing troupe rehearsals can be like trying to catch squirrels. Or maybe you’re doing all three no problem and you just want more more more Improv Improv Improv!
Well, here are some extra ways you can learn and grow as an improviser:
It doesn’t matter if the show is good or bad, there’s plenty to be learned from watching. DON’T make it your job to judge the show but DO make active, useful observations. Follow along with the show as if you were on the back line. Try to name each scene based on what it was about. Flag moments in the show that were potential edit points. Look for connections and themes in the show. If this show had a slogan what would it be? Put yourself in the shoes of each player and try to understand what they’re doing. Watch from a place of curiosity and investigation or as TJ & Dave would say, ‘Pay Attention’. This will carry over to your time on stage and allow you to naturally make these kinds of observations when you play.
Seek out and watch rare Improv. If a special guest performer or troupe comes to town, see that show. If a troupe or show is trying some crazy outside the box idea, see that show. If there’s a pop up Improv show in the back of some record store, see that show. I also highly recommend taking a trip to a place like Chicago to see some shows. There are plenty of living legends of Improv who are still doing regular shows. See Messing with a Friend or Trigger Happy at The Annoyance, The Improvised Shakespeare Company or TJ & Dave at iO.
Improv is a community driven art and there’s no better way to participate in that community than to take an interest in what your fellow improvisers are putting on stage.
READ ABOUT IMPROV
Look, reading sucks and everybody knows it. But if you haven’t read any books on Improv you’re really doing yourself a disservice. I recommend Behind the Scenes by Mick Napier. I feel like if every improviser read that book there would be half as many bad shows and twice as many good ones. The Second City Almanac is also an excellent read. It’s got like 25 contributing authors so it actually reads more like a collection of articles featuring greats like Keegan Michael Key, Tina Fey, and Adam McKay.
TAKE NON IMPROV WORKSHOPS AND CLASSES
I took a physical theater program at Second City a few years ago and I was expecting it to be taught by improvisers for improvisers. Instead it was skill specific courses like dance and stage combat taught by professionals in those fields. There was one day that was on physicalizing characters in improvised scenes but, while fun, it ended up being the least exciting day for me. It was much more fun to learn entirely NEW SKILLS in their own right.
Seek out workshops for acting, singing, voice acting, clown, mime, etc. Having training in these areas will make you a more well rounded, capable performer.
LISTEN TO IMPROV PODCASTS
I can’t believe how many Improv podcasts there are. It’s insane. Improv Nerd with Jimmy Carrane is on its 226th episode. You can piece together a complete history of modern improv from all the interviews on that show. Improv Obsession with Stephen Perlstein existed long enough for Stephen to go from being an obsessed student of Improv to being a jaded coach ready to walk away from Improv all together. I’m currently listening to One Night Only with Miles Stroth which has a nice Q&A segment in each episode. All of these are excellent and endlessly insightful podcasts. The interview format is the most common format for these shows so I recommend maybe browsing for a guest you recognize and listening to that episode to see if the show jives with you. I’m a big fan of any interview with Matt Besser or Rachel Mason.
SIDEBAR: There’s a particular podcast episode out there that I think every improviser in the world should listen to. It’s a two part episode featuring UCB co-founder Ian Roberts and it’s called Improv: ‘Rules’ vs. ‘No Rules’. It’s a discussion about whether rules in Improv are a good or bad thing. Very thought provoking stuff.
Those are your extra credit assignments: Watch Improv, read an Improv book, learn a non Improv performance skill, tune in to an Improv podcast.
So if your class gets cancelled, you can’t figure out who’s living room is big enough for a rehearsal, stage time is booked through next year or if there’s just no such thing as too much Improv, take on these tips and add to your learning momentum.
James Quesada is Go Comedy!’s Director of Long Form and an enthusiastic director, coach and performer all over the Metro Detroit Improv scene.