Okay, so it's a bit of an inflammatory title, but Maria Peters (who’s awesome) floated the question ‘in improv, what’s the difference between a coach, a director and a teacher?’
At first I watched the conversation on Facebook with passing interest. Then when people had different ideas, I started writing a response. It was far too long for Facebook, so now it’s this.
First of all, the question is all semantics. It doesn’t really matter what you understand those words to mean as long as you and the person you’re getting in to coach/teach/direct have a mutual agreement of what’s to be achieved and how.
My semantics are as follows:
If you’re directing, you should direct the SHOW and not the people. I learned this from Rich and Rebecca Sohn last year. The Maydays are all at a similar level of improv, so it can feel weird if your peers are telling you how to improvise or vice versa. The Sohns had learned a lesson that it’s not okay to give notes to your fellow players, it just breeds resentment. We all make different choices in improv and they’re all good.
When I directed Oh Boy! The Quantum Leap Show for the Maydays, I was careful to make sure that I wasn’t critiquing anyone’s improv, but honing the sort of choices that would produce a Quantum Leap feel and story. For example, Quantum Leap is the most anti-improv show ever. We didn’t realise till we started but the protagonist, Sam, has to ask a shit ton of questions and pretend he has no idea what’s going on. In improv, you mostly need to look like you know exactly what’s going on and it’s a stronger choice to be an expert than for it to be your (yawn) ‘first day’. It’s hard for Sam to drive the story because he has no idea why he’s there and what he has to put right*. We also didn’t want to be hampered by narrative, so it was about finding tropes that fit the feel of the show instead of telling everyone what was about to happen. Al can be WRONG, offers can be DROPPED and the show works. Hell, Al is only ever seen by Sam, children and pets. Most of the cast spend the show ignoring one improviser! The driving force of the show is that Sam follows his heart and his moral compass.
Another example was a show I directed called ‘Silly String Theory’. Though I was directing, I brought in Ryan Millar and a few others to coach us during rehearsals. The show was my vision, but there were skills we all needed to work on. In that show, we discovered that because it was a slice of life form, we didn’t want to have anything extraordinary happen. For example, you couldn’t have a bunch of Gods chatting, unless you justified that that was a novel someone was writing, or a play that someone was in. Again, that’s a narrowing of choices to fit the form, not just raising everyone’s general skill level.
If I’m going to be taught by someone, I expect them to be better than me, or to have a set of skills that I don’t have or am not as good at. Sometimes you get good teachers that are bad improvisers and bad teachers that are good improvisers which makes it a little confusing. A good improv teacher will support you in failing, so that you can push yourself. Normally the teacher would decide what to teach and students would come along who wanted to learn that thing. I know that’s obvious, but it’s different than coaching. The teacher will be the authority, they CAN say ‘do it like this, not like that’. At the end of the day, it’s the student’s choice whether that autocracy works for them, whether the teaching style makes their work better or gives them something to head towards. I’ve had some exceptional teachers and some terrible ones. I always learn something though, even if it’s ‘never teach like that’. The course/class/drop in/workshop has a remit and that is either fulfilled or not at the end of it. I came to learn improvised rap/music/object work/long form. Am I better at that now? Good. Then I got taught.
This is the sticky one, that role that people are split on their definitions of. My experience of coaching is that there is a group or cast that brings someone in to raise their game. The group has already decided what they want. Sometimes that is as vague as ‘get better at improv’ and sometimes it’s as specific as ‘we want to do a rap game in our shortform show’. The word is the same as it is in sports because it is the same role. There is a team and it’s your job to make them win. An improv teacher supports failure (makes you comfortable with it, so you can get better) whereas an improv coach supports success (we are going to nail this). You can still say ‘do it like this, not like that’ but the group ultimately has the choice. You really need a discussion about exactly what the group want out of the coaching. And that’s different to the teacher role. Afterwards the group can decide what parts of that coaching fit the show or the team. In that aspect, it’s different to sports.
Perhaps the difference between coach and director is that the director is making a product and the coach is honing the product. I believe that the coach should have the authority in the room. They are not one of the team, they are the disciplinarian. You do what the coach says, that’s what you’re paying them for.
I’d also agree with Joe Samuel and say that there is a fourth kind of person you might want to get in to your process which is what he calls a facilitator and what I would call a collaborator or an ‘outside eye’. This is someone whose work you like. You might get them along to one or all of your rehearsals to help out. They will watch runs of the show and offer notes, solutions to stuff, perhaps even exercises. The group take the notes and ideas and decide what they want to do with them. The difference between this and a coach is that a collaborator would be one of the team. They don’t have to control the room when it gets rowdy, they don’t need to make any decisions, they just have to have their own opinion and some possible active solutions.
That’s my tuppence worth. I have no idea if my definitions are useful to anyone, but it’s helped me to pick apart the roles I have on different projects. My advice would be that if you are getting someone in to help with your group, make sure you know what you want out of them. Even if that changes after the first rehearsal, it’s going to make you more productive and it saves time to know who has the authority in the room, who has the final artistic say and who you welcome taking personal improv notes from.
In the last year, I directed Oh Boy! The Quantum Leap Show, coached Jinni Lyons is an Only Child, All Made Up, Constantine’s One by One, The Science of Living Things, collaborated on Countdown to Doom, various podcasts and taught for the Maydays and Hoopla.
*Don’t know what I’m talking about? Go watch the Quantum Leap TV show, it’s brilliant!
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