How to know if you’ve been taught Improv by an idiot:
1. You were told that ANYONE can become an Improviser.
It is true that Improv is a remarkably accessible craft. But like any other art-form, there is a great spectrum of aptitude. Improvising is one thing, we are always doing it at all times, anyone CAN do that, but being an Improviser requires a balance of learned skill and an innate sensibility that cannot, even with years and years of dedicated practice for some, be manufactured.
Note the capital “I” in Improviser. The first time this article was published I received quite a bit of heat from people who love Improv wish for it to be always represented as a free-for-all people conduit for creative expression. It was not my intention to infringe upon that perspective. I agree that Improv and the skills therein are accessible to anyone. I also believe that Improv and the skills therein can be beneficial to anyone. What I do not believe and what I think abates respect for the craftsmanship and artistry of professional improvisation, is the sentiment that anyone can take a few classes, perform in a few shows and thus be considered an Improviser. Here is where the “person who improvises” vs. Improviser debate begins, but that is another article entirely. A teacher who claims that anyone who wants to become an Improviser can do so, may simply be trying to sell you something.
2. You were taught to be completely free of thought at all times.
Writing no script, making no plan, forcing no previously conceived notion, YES. Being a constantly empty shell, floating in the ether of nothingness, NO. To do the work of allowing the improvisation to develop organically one must be engaged, physically, emotionally and yes, intellectually. Learning to be relaxed in the state of not knowing is essential, but this skill is nothing like apathy, nothing like vacancy. Rather, it is alive with relaxed readiness, listening with your whole body, awareness of the improvisation that is unfolding, moment by moment.
3. You were told to be funny.
I ought to smack the person who told you this. Firstly, the pressure of that expectation could un-funny anyone. Secondly, the expectation that improvisation is always, or should always be funny, is incredibly limiting. Thirdly, laughter is a symptom of improvisation and not its designing feature. The navigation of spontaneous creative cooperation is inherently imperfect. It is from those moments of imperfection and how we pilot them that funny occurs. Your audience laughs because they identify and because they can see you’re at constant risk of falling from the tightrope wire, when you almost do, and then don’t they laugh with relief. They laugh because the content you create is honest. They laugh because it's funny, not because YOU are funny. If that were so they’d be laughing AT you, and that is entirely less satisfying for everyone involved.
4. You were taught to NEVER ask questions and NEVER to say “no”.
How boring. It’s important to know the difference between stalling a scene with a refusal to know or assume anything, (thus making yourself invulnerable and hanging your scene partner out to dry), and allowing your character to ask questions that occur to them naturally, humanly. People ask questions. A scene that works to avoid them is working too hard. Questions come, they are answered and we move forward.
Here is an example from one of my classes: Two students are executing a scene, and I mean executing as in murdering it. Student 1 is driving the scene, working hard to do so, forcing and pushing the other student along and the Student 2 is wilting, hardly contributing at all. I stop the scene and ask Student 2 what’s going on here. Student 2 replies that he couldn’t understand what Student 1 was saying half the time and was wholly uncertain how to respond. “Why didn’t you ask him to repeat himself?” Student 2 looks confused, “But I am not supposed to ask any questions.” “Oh.” I say, “I see why you struggled there. But you were in character right? And your character couldn’t hear what the other character said, right? So, what if your character asked, in your character’s voice, “what did you just say?” What is the harm in that?” The students thinks for a moment and says, finally, “Oh so, if I don’t know something, like my character wouldn’t know it probably, and then it's okay to ask?” We then addressed recognizing when it’s important to assume information and when your character reasonably, honestly needs to inquire.
And the same goes for saying “no”. Not just the word “no”, but when your character simply would not accept the offer. If it’s been established that your character dislikes coffee, and another character offers you some, it does no harm to ask for something else, to remind them of your preferences or simply to accept the coffee and then put the full cup down when the other character turns away. In fact it improves the improvisation, making it more dynamic, giving it subtext. I strongly believe that self endowments are as essential as gifted endowments and that it is the balance of the two that create the most satisfying work.
5. You were told to be more like Jimmy Falon.
Who is this idiot teacher who said this? I can’t even address this without turning into a fire-breathing dragon.
6. If you’re a woman, you were told to play men more. If you’re a man you were told to play more women.
Well hello there sexism. Often when people are told to embody the opposite sex it has more to do with diversifying their cache of characters than anything else. I love to see my students being comfortable with gender swapping, but I would never recommend it. There is limitless diversity of characters within each gender. When genders are swapped, it's often for the wrong reasons. For example, a woman wants to play a high status military officer, so she makes herself a man. Or a man wants to play a giggly secretary, so he makes himself a woman. I suggest that this limits us and perpetuates gender stereotypes. I encourage my students to explore the diversity in the gender with which they self-identify; only playing opposite their gender when it is necessary to the improvisation.
7. You were told that improv is for actors who don’t care anymore.
I heard this in class once. The student who said it had heard it from a former improv teacher. That teacher had said it in a derogatory way. But this student, after three months in classes with me said this, “He wasn’t wrong in the statement but how he said it. He is right that we don’t care, we don’t care about our egos, or who owns which idea. We don’t care about perfection, or completion, of set design, or furniture. We are free from that. We are actors without limits.” This statement delighted me beyond reason and I felt like I had done my job.
8. You were told that improv is a just warm-up for actors.
Over the years I have had the pleasure of working with both improvisers and scripted actors quite a lot. It has been my experience that the strongest performers are both actors and improvisers always. Some actors are more comfortable with a script, and some improvisers are terrified of memorization and taking outside direction. But an improviser who does not see herself as an actor does not fully embrace the power of what she is doing, she doesn’t respect it. She struggles to commit to characters, is disconnected from her character perspective and experience. This improviser is prone to “playing” herself.
An actor without improvisation skills is inflexible, recites lines because it’s their turn rather than their response. He struggles to listen with his whole body. He is stiff and put visibly off balance when things don’t go exactly to plan. This actor takes himself very seriously and often finds himself in battle with his ego. In my beautifully imperfect dream world, all actors study improvisation as a performance craft married to scripted theater and all improvisers willingly and gratefully see themselves as the actors that they are.
9. You were taught to point out “mistakes” and openly tease other performers to get a good laugh.
The only person who truly likes this is the person doing it. The audience may laugh, but they are laughing AT someone’s misfortune or because they are uncomfortable. This kind of laughter is cheap and disenchanting. I understand allowing your character to see that the soup bowl your partner is eating from is abnormally large and commenting on it, but I only condone this if the comment is made through a character voice and perspective. In my opinion improviser who does this while playing themselves, or breaks character to do it is being selfish. I understand there are whole schools of thought based on this kind of crap. And some people do it very, very well. But I argue, it doesn’t feel good and it cheapens improvisation, devolves in into a gimmicky gluttonous game. And it takes away from the beauty of imperfection. Each one of our “mistakes” is an opportunity to go somewhere, see something that we wouldn’t have seen or done without it. I teach my students to honor “mistakes” as tiny miracles, allow them to blossom into something else. Yes see the “misstep”, yes use it, but use it for the good of the improvisation and not the ego.
10. You were taught that laughter is the strongest evidence of your success.
An audience’s laughter can feel like the most remarkable gift in the world. It’s totally understandable that improvisers love it. I love it. But if we’re taught that laughter is the be all and end all of our success, we limit ourselves to the quest for it. Thus we are routinely denied the full spectrum of emotional connection. I would trade in a good laugh from an audience for a gasp or an intensity full silence any day. These reactions are evidence of good, strong storytelling and good, strong acting. I believe improvisers striving to tell strong stories and to fully embody the improvisation at hand will garner the full emotional gamut.
11. You were taught RULES.
There are no rules. There are gems of wisdom acquired from experience, tricks and techniques, but there are no hard and fast rules. Or rather, there shouldn’t be. In teaching beginners, many teachers find similar strategies to encourage letting go, (yes), advancing and enhancing (and). We teach to avoid blocking. We teach relaxed readiness. But a teacher who teaches rules creates an improviser who plays by them. Rules cause expectations and expectations lead to disappointment. In the case of an unfolding improvisation, rules, expectations and disappointment can be toxic and even deadly. (No, no, the improviser won’t die! They may feel like their dying, but it is the improvisation itself that will suffer and yes, it may just go right ahead and die a terrible painful death).
12. You were taught to focus completely on the support of the other player.
You were probably taught this so resolutely that you do it often at the at the expense of all your inspirations and impulses. Unless you’re telepathic there is no way you can ever know for certain what is happening in the mind of other players. Everyone on stage may interpret the improvisation differently. Get out of their head and into the room with the creation. It doesn’t exist inside them. It doesn’t exist inside you. It’s out here, being built presently. If your focus is on trying to decode the unbreakable mind of a creative performer, you’re going to miss out on the awesome thing you could be making together.
13. You were taught to give the audience what they want.
This is especially disappointing when an audience isn’t yet well versed in improv. If they come in thinking they’re going to get a laugh-a-minute stand up routine with many comedians on stage at once, playing a game or saying butt a lot, just like they saw on TV, wouldn’t it be a shame to give them what they think they want? So they paid for a show? Give it to them.
Give them a wonderful show wrought with dynamic performances. They paid you because you are the performer, you are the professional, and you are the communicator, so communicate YOUR message. What do you want to show them? What do you want to share? If you want to create a stand-up heavy butt butt show, for heaven's sake do that. But never sacrifice the infinite adventure of your message to create what you believe an audience desires. If you connect with them emotionally, infuse them with engaging ideas, your ideas, your characters ideas, create stories they can identify with or stories that inspire them, they will thank you and they’ll come back to see YOU again.