I’ve been teaching improv classes for a long time, and over the years, I’ve seen students do the same things over and over again that get in their way. Here are the top 5 things that improvisers should avoid doing in class and suggestions about how you can do it differently.
1. Don’t apologize after a scene or when you’re given a note
A lot of times, when people finish a scene in improv class or get a note from the teacher, they say “sorry.” You don’t need to say this. I should know — I was one of those people who said sorry all the time after a scene or an exercise. I was apologizing for not being perfect. I was apologizing for wasting your time. I was apologizing for existing.
“Sorry” means you did something wrong. I am here to tell you, you did nothing wrong. You are improvising – and that means it’s impossible to make a mistake. I understand you think you made a mistake, but you didn’t. So give yourself a break and stop apologizing for learning.
Suggestion: Next time, substitute the word “thank you” or “oh” for “sorry” and see if you feel differently.
2. Don’t be defensive
This is a hard thing to address because if you’re defensive and you’re reading this, you probably don’t think this applies to you. Boy, do I wish I had a way to get through to you. I have taken improv classes with defensive people, I have taught improv classes with defensive people, and these people would rather be right than learn. Every note from the teacher to the student becomes some sort of justification why the student did this or that. If you find yourself justifying why you did something, rather than just taking the note, you are being defensive. And when you’re defensive, you’re not learning, you’re just surviving.
Suggestion: If you have an inkling that you might be defensive, get help for it outside of class, because you are wasting your time and money taking improv classes, or, to be honest, any kind of classes.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarity when you get a note you don’t understand
I have a friend who’s taking improv classes and he called me up for some advice. He was getting the same note over and over again from different teachers, and he didn’t really understand what they meant. I asked him if he got clarity on the note. “No, I don’t want to be one of those students who takes up all the time during improv classes.” Here’s the thing: If you don’t understand a note, this is the time to be one of those students because it gives the teacher the opportunity to share their experience with you, or better yet, come up with an exercise that can help you. As a teacher, I love these opportunities. It’s exciting, because now the class and the teacher are improvising together, and the chance that we will learn from each other is pretty good.
Suggestion: If you don’t understand a note, ask questions. Be ok with taking up time in your improv classes. It will only help you get more comfortable taking up stage time.
4. Don’t be polite
Most students are super polite and hold back in improv classes, especially in exercises that are quick and designed for the players to go multiply times such as 30-second scene, three-line scenes, etc. These games are designed for you to learn through repetition, and by jumping in as much as you can, you help the group as whole. Don’t be polite and let other people take all the turns. Trust that if you are getting out there too much, the teacher will reign you in. There is old actor/director tip: It’s easier to tell an actor to bring it down if he’s playing it too big than to have an actor who is playing it too small and have him play it bigger.
Suggestion: Keep pushing yourself out there!
5. Don’t hold back, even if you’re feeling insecure
If you feel off or you’re having one of those days where you don’t have any confidence, make sure you don’t hide out in class. Instead, be the first one up. Ryan Archibald once gave me the best piece to advice. I was doing a long-form show at Second City called Summer Rental, and I showed up backstage before the show and told some of the cast members that I felt off. Ryan said: “Make sure you are in the first scene.” Man, he was right. I did a scene with Joe Canale and we nailed it. I think being scared helped me do some of my best work.
Suggestion: Your mind will want to tell you to hide out. Do the opposite and get out there.