Perhaps you’re new to improv and you can’t wait to be more confident on stage. Perhaps you’ve been doing it for a year or two and it’s still really fun, but you feel a bit stuck in improvising the same kind of thing. Perhaps you’ve been doing improv for 5 years or more and you’re not getting into the shows you want or being asked to join groups. Perhaps you’re a veteran; you teach and you play in a well-known team, but you want to fricking excel.
Here are a handful of ways that can really help you up your game. Some of them are pretty obvious, but putting them together will make you a superhero. Spandex, people. Spandex.
Here we go: in order of difficulty, easy to hard:
I’m assuming you’re already taking classes and probably doing shows. If you’re not, start there.
Oh my Gods, it is crazy how many students I get that have never even seen improv. They might remember Whose Line from the 90’s or they went to the Comedy Store one time, but that ain’t the same. If you really want to be good at comedy, you need to see what other people are doing, and regularly. It doesn’t even matter if the shows you see are not very good, or if they’re not the kind of style you’re into. In fact, great! Now you know what you don’t want to do on stage. That’s just as awesome as knowing what you do want to do. That’s why people go crazy for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe; it’s where you’ll see the best and worst shows of your life and you can be inspired and reassured by where you are on that scale.
2. Play with Strangers
Jams are a really good way of cutting your teeth in improv. A jam has become parlance for a show where any audience members can get up and play, including total beginners. Playing with less experienced people makes you better at support and driving the scene. Playing with more experienced players gives you an ego boost and helps you to take risks and see what it can feel like to be truly supported. Both break you out of habits that you may have fallen into by playing with the same people.
Jams aren’t the only option for this. Pick some people you’d love to play with and ask them if they’d like to do a gig with you. Maybe put on a night where you do your show, they do their show and you all play in a mash-up at the end. What’s the worst that could happen? They’ll say no? Well, that’s the same outcome as you not asking, so you might as well tip the odds.
3. Geek Out
For the most part, improvisers are nerds (or at least improv nerds) so they like to talk about it in great detail. You can swap philosophies, understand people’s intentions for their work, hear about new forms and exciting shows that are going on. You might even make a new bud. Aw.
4. Learn with a Different School
Have you taken classes at an improv school? Great! Well done you for learning. Now it’s important to remember that improv is not maths. There is no one way of doing it right, no matter what people tell you. You WILL get teachers that contradict one-another because comedy is in the eye of the beholder. I say hooray for that! Superb! Try out another school. Learn a different way in. If you’ve been taught to always bring an idea or premise on to the stage, go somewhere where you are forced to be organic and build from nothing with your scene partner. If you’ve been at a very physical school, go somewhere where wordplay is the most coveted thing. That way we all get a thousand more tools to play with and we’re not judgy about whose way is better. We can choose in the moment, or be appropriate to the show we’re performing in. This totally goes for improv veterans too. If you are teaching and you haven’t been to someone else’s class in a year, you’re probably stagnating. Book a visiting coach from the States, do a week of clowning, go learn Meisner. But please, you haven’t ‘finished’ learning improv.
5. Do Two Person Improv
I can’t recommend this enough. Doing a two person show with Rachel Blackman after exclusively playing with the Maydays taught me SO MUCH. When there are just two of you on stage you have to take responsibility. You really need to tune in with that other person, really make their offers count, really listen, really commit and so forth. Basically every piece of improv guidance you’ve ever had is underlined and pushed. You’ll find out much more clearly who you are as an improviser. Half of that show is you and all of it is both of you. Don’t just stick to one partner, screw around. Play with as many partners as will take you. Each one will magnify a style that you have in you and make you a better improviser.
I’m saying this partly because I took Project2 to Sweden recently and it reminded me how useful it is not only to watch shows, but to watch shows from other countries. Things (comedy, theatre, edits, framing, character types) we take for granted in our own countries are not necessarily the norm elsewhere. To generalise horribly, Brits and Americans are much less physical in their work than most of Europe. Also, it’s really beneficial being outside of your home country when you’re watching shows, because that different environment makes you more open to new things. Most people will also be leaving their work (and their loved ones) behind so it can be more immersive.
It’s pretty difficult to learn improv from a book, but if you’re taking classes or doing shows, it’s a great way to supplement your learning. Some of my favourites are:
8. Tape Your Shows
Okay, this one is a total nightmare and really just for those of you that really want to push your level up. I’ve done it for blocks of time in the past and this year I am taping most of my shows. It’s a diagnostic tool and it’s very useful as a leveler when you realize that bad shows weren’t as bad as you imagined and good shows weren’t as good as you thought. Be kind to yourself and your team if you do do diagnostics. The best way to approach it is not to criticize the specifics of that show, but to ask yourself what can you take from it for your next show. Make sure it’s full of positives and not just what you think you fucked up. A positive note might be ‘we are really good at leaving space in dialogue, let’s keep doing that’ or a constructive note might be ‘let’s use the physical space more imaginatively next time’. I’d steer you away from critiquing one-another’s improv and keep it about the show.
This one isn’t for everyone, but leading a session or even a warm-up for your team can really help you be a better improviser. Breaking down what exercises are for, reading the energy in the room and setting goals for your scenework can be really insightful. Teaching and coaching teaches me so much that I spend a lot of my time doing it. There’s always a balance, though. Make sure you perform if you teach and road test everything you’re telling other people to try.
10. Do Something Else
If you’re in deep, this might be the most important one. Take time to do something – anything – else. For most people the other thing might be their day job, or another hobby, but those of us that are doing it 24/7, it’s really important to have outside influences. I like to read curated Stack Magazines to get a different worldview, to watch films and scripted theatre, to hula hoop or hang out with friends. If you don’t do anything else, where will your inspiration come from? Improv will be a little in-jokey if you aren’t having other life experiences. Also, improv will seem a bit too important and you won’t have as much fun. Remember, it’s just make-‘em-ups.
Thanks for reading.
Resources for Londoners:
For schools and shows have a look at:
Hoopla, Maydays, Nursery, Free Association, Monkey Toast, Spontaneity Shop and more. Plus UCB, Second City and IO teach intensive courses or have teachers visit the UK, so keep an eye out for those.
There are lots of jams in London, the most regular and notable being Duck, Duck, Goose. There's also C3 Something once a week and the Playground once a month.