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So you finally did it; you faced your fears and booked an improv class. Good on you, honestly! Most people mull it over, then let their comfort zone win, so they never know what its like to have fun with their fear, and find joy in what scares them.
You're going to have fun, I promise. Along the way you'll also learn some invaluable life lessons just by turning up and paying attention. However, if you really want to get the most out of your class, here are some suggestions:
1. Take notes
Improv class doesn't really have any designated writing time (you'll mostly be on your feet doing fun stuff), but there are quite a few nuggets of wisdom on offer. Bring a notebook and pen, and jot down any sayings, expected learning outcomes, performance dates and things that confuse you. It will help with memory, and it's great to come back to at the end of term to see how far you've come.
2. Do the exercise in front of you
Most of your class time will be spent running different activities. There will be a few exercises and activities that might feel counterintuitive or like they don't fit into your expectations of improv. That's completely normal. I like to tell my students that improv is like playing a sport; in training you might do sprints, bench presses or other activities that train a particular muscle group, but do not appear to have anything to do with the game. The reason for this is that once you've strengthened those muscles, you will be able to execute the movements in the game more easily, and without thinking. As improv is open-ended, we can't teach you how to know what's going to happen in a given scene, but we can work the skills (muscles) that will help you make great choices in the moment on stage.
3. Get to know your classmates
The best shows I've ever done are the ones where I'm having fun with my team and trying to make them laugh. It's absolutely crucial to good improv that you feel comfortable with your scene partner, so it's a good idea to make an effort to get to know other people. Grab a drink or a coffee with them before or after class, learn about their experiences and find out what you have in common. Everyone comes from their own unique, interesting background, and knowing each other better will make your scenes more enjoyable.
4. Avoid giving feedback to your teammates
It might sound innocuous, as everyone learns from feedback, right? Totally. Still, please leave that to your teacher. At the start of my journey, I honestly thought I knew everything (or at least more than others). I wanted to help those who I felt didn't quite get it, but offering them advice actually drove them away. In your team, you need to feel equal; you need to trust each other and feel comfortable taking risks with them. Offering advice to a teammate can make them feel judged by you, and it can make them afraid to do certain things on stage for fear that you'll judge them again. It's a surefire way to turn players into a ball of anxiety.
On top of that, your teacher is trained to know what notes to give and how to give them. Looking back on my Level 1 experience (when I thought I knew everything) I really didn't know that much, so I should not have been giving someone else advice.
5. Do some homework
It's usually not a requirement, but it always pays to do a little extra study. Reading or listening to the thoughts of other veteran improvisers might help you with a term you don't understand, or it may help cement some of the "guidelines" your teacher provided you with.
Your improv theatre will usually sell theory books, but there are also heaps of podcasts and blogs on the internet if you've already spent up big on your classes.
The theatre will usually offer free shows to students as well. See them! It's a great way to catch up with your teammates: it's fun, and watching improv will show you where you're headed. To add to that, in almost every case, the students who see more shows tend to pick up new concepts faster. Ask your teacher what shows they recommend for students at your level.
6. Be patient
I often have students ask me “Do you have some personal feedback for me?” or “What can I do to get better?”. 90% of the time my answer is “Just keep at it, come to class, listen and practice”. Chances are, my personal feedback for you is just to listen to the note that I've already given you multiple times in class.
Another thing I've personally dealt with in the past is FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). I wanted to get on a house team at my theatre quickly, and I wanted to be the best improviser overnight. Unfortunately it doesn't work like that; being a good improviser takes time and it deserves your presence and attention, otherwise learning opportunities will be staring you in the face and you'll miss them.
7. Keep an open mind
You might have done an acting course before, taken some improv workshops at a different theatre, or maybe you're into comedy and have strong opinions on what's funny. No matter who we are, we have certain expectations of what good improv, comedy or theatre should be. It's totally cool to bring that to class, but be warned; if you are unwilling to expand your understanding or you refuse to budge on your ideas, you won't learn much.
8. Go easy on yourself
Some of you might be entering a class, holding your cat-o'-nine-tails ready to go to town on yourself as soon as you have a tough scene. Before you do though, take note; it's really unhealthy to talk yourself down just because you got something "wrong", or made a mistake, or maybe you're just not getting it yet. That's fine, we've all been there, and some of the best improvisers I know have repeated levels and struggled with concepts for ages before they nailed it. It takes a lot of messed up scenes and notes before many people get hold of good improv skills, and some established improvisers are still working it all out. So let yourself make mistakes, just please don't attack yourself for it. Laugh it off and try again; it will come eventually.
9. Be a team player
"The class isn't only for you".
This was something that took me a while to fully understand. Sometimes I would tune out if another student was getting a note, or in my own scenes I would try to be the biggest characters, who took centre stage and demanded all the audience's attention, at the expense of my scene partner's experience. I have an acting background so I'm a born narcissist.
I learnt 2 things from improv about being a team player:
A. Notes for other people may actually apply to you too, so keep your ears open.
B. Scenes will always work better when the group works together and becomes cohesive.
10. Save your "edgy comedy" for your stand up routine
Improv is often funny, but it can sometimes be uncomfortable and awkward. 99% of the awkward shows come from players trying to force a joke, sexual innuendo or social message. Look, sometimes a dick joke just lands on your lap and it was exactly what the scene needed, and you will hear the crowd erupt in applause. However, I guarantee that if you walk out with the intention of delivering some hard hitting comedy that breaks the glass ceiling and frees every marginalised group from oppression; you'll be met with an awkward cough or a shock laugh at best. Most of the time your scene partner won't understand what you're doing, and you might even make them feel uncomfortable. The reason why; that stuff deserves to be written down. It requires you to edit and re-read and practice it to perfect it. Improv is about discovery in the moment, and throwing out a something controversial or getting sexy with your partner (who's not expecting it) might make them really regret playing with you.
Most of all, remember to have fun. Play and muck around with your mates, but remember to give them space and respect.
It's going to change your life, and you wont regret it!
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