I’ve been lucky enough (maxed out credit cards enough) to have been in Chicago a number of times. I first went to do the Second City Intensive in 2005, then the IO Intensive in 2008, then to hang out in 2015. Since the first time, us Maydays, have brought over loads of teachers, because they are some of the best in the world. Last week we went over as a whole company for our DIY Intensive training program.
Here is a disgusting, boiled-down version of 30+ hours of improv learning for the Buzzfeed Millennial mindset. There are SO MANY exercises, insights and philosophies from all of these teachers, but this is just a taster.
1. Let’s give each other stuff we want to play - Jorin Garguilo
We spent time in class literally asking one another what we like to do on stage and making one another aware of that. So you like playing animals, being picked up or getting pimped into difficult stuff? Great; tell your team and mess around with that.
2. Everything you need is already here - TJ Jagodowski
I lost count of the number of times TJ would stop the scene within a few seconds because we were denying our own offers. Look at how you’re standing. What was that expression about? Did you feel that underlying tension? You seem like colleagues, no? Let’s just take a second to acknowledge every micro-offer, then we hardly need to work at all.
3. Don’t just yes, add information - Adal Rifai
We’ve been learning ‘yes, and’ since day one, but actually we can be a lot more efficient. Once we get the first line, we can really go to town on detail. Take a moment to check if you are and-ing, or if you’re just yessing with a lot of words.
4. Flip-flop between things you find easy and things you find hard – Mick Napier
Mick is the king of personal feedback and I learned a lot of great stuff. As a teacher, I really loved that instead of banning us from a habit, he would have us toggle between doing that thing and doing the opposite. Play fast/slow, play high/low status, initiate/react and so forth.
5. Have the conversation about physical boundaries - Rebecca Sohn
I have written about Rebecca before and I think she’s an exceptional teacher. We did a lot of great physical and character work, but I was really pleased that she initiated the question of what we were all comfortable about on stage. It’s a great discussion to have with people you work with. Will you feel comfortable if I’m touching this/that part of your body on stage, if I’m kissing you, if we have a physical pile-on? Have this conversation with your group. I’ve been working with the Maydays for 12 years and this was still valuable as hell.
6. Kill, Marry, Fuck - Rich Sohn
Using these basic human extremes of emotion, we played out (sometimes the same) scenes, pushing in each direction. Marry is broadly ‘negotiate’ and the others are exactly what you think they are. Really, everything boils down to this.
7. Play appropriately for the show you’re doing - Bill Arnett
Bill is the Maydays’ spirit animal and we continue to learn ALL of improv from this guy. The sentiment that keeps hitting home from Bill for me is that improv is not one set of rules, it is a particular style for a particular show. Work out whether you’re playing hard premise/follow-me scenes, slow burn/relationship scenes or any particular kind of style, then put that into your rehearsals, warm-up appropriate to that show and have a director guide you as to what’s right for THAT show.
8. How to find an emotional point of view- Farrell Walsh
When you get a one word suggestion, there are lots of ways to take it into a scene. Think about how you attach to ‘strawberry’ as a word; does it make you feel summery, fruity, allergic? Attach to the context of the word; how are you at a tennis match? Bored, exhilarated, lost? Is there anywhere else you’d feel that feeling? Perhaps you’d also feel lost at a supermarket like you did when you were small. Boom; there’s a feeling and a setting for your scene.
9. Show Up
After a few years, it seems like the easiest thing to do in improv; get the hell on stage, but I found myself hesitating in my first Chicago show because I was playing in a 13-strong cast with veteran players. Hesitating doesn’t help anyone. Show the hell up, that’s the only way you can follow through on supporting your fellow improvisers. We’re always being told to make our fellow players look good, to serve the show; well, this is the best way of doing it. Get on stage. If you’re auditioning your idea or anyone else’s, you have already lost the battle and the moment for that idea will have passed.
10. Make room for others
This is the other thing I learned from playing with the cool kids; there is always a hand reached out; we are in this together, no one will be left behind. Bring someone on who hasn’t got on stage yet, leave space for them to respond and play, treat them like a genius, artist and poet.
11. Stage Time is Everything
It’s all very well learning a lot of theory about improv and reading books and quoting the teachers you’ve had, but it’s up to you to create your own philosophy and style. The only way to learn to be a successful performance improviser is to hit the stage regularly, watch a lot of shows and play with people that challenge you.
About the Author:
Katy is a London-based improviser who plays in Destination the improvised podcast, a whole bunch of live shows including Project2 and The Maydays and teaches improv classes.
Thanks to The Annoyance, Bughouse and IO theatres for hosting shows with us, to all the incredible teachers we had, co-stars we played with and friends we made.
And thank you for reading.