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5 Things to Avoid in Your Improv Classes

Art of Slow Comedy

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.

Want to take your scene work to the next level? Sign up for Jimmy’s Two-Person Scene Tune-Up on April 14!

10 ways to get more out of your improv class

Many people think that improv is something people are just “naturally” good at. If you’re born funny, you can make people laugh, right? Not so. If you want to get better, you’re going to have to study this art form and take a lot of classes before you get good. It’s just a fact. And unfortunately, improv classes aren’t cheap. So if you’re going to be shelling out a lot of money for improv classes, you might as well get the most out of them, right? Here are my top 10 tips for getting the most out of your improv class:

1. Find out who the teacher is before you sign up.
An improv school is only as good as its teachers, and you want to be studying with the best. So before you sign up for an improv class, find out who is teaching the class. If you are new in town and don’t know the reputation of certain teachers, find someone who does. Go to a teacher you respect or another student and ask them. It’s your time and your money. Whatever you do, don’t make this decision alone.

2. Decide what you want from improv.
Improv has become diversified lately. People ask me all the time when they finish the Art of Slow Comedy improv class, “What should I do next?” Before I give them an answer, I ask them what they want to achieve. Are you an actor who wants to use improv to strengthen your on-camera auditions? Do you want to do long-form, short-form or use improv as a tool to write sketch? Get specific on what you want from improv; this will help you decide where the best place is for you to study.

3. Take no more than two improv classes at a time.
I really like to say if you are in a level system at one of the big institutions, only take one class at a time. I know that is not realistic with today’s improviser, so, I will say at the very most, take no more than two classes at a time. Why, you ask? So you don’t get confused with the different approaches. Too much running around town from one class to the next gives you no time to have a life outside of improv so you don’t have any life experiences to bring to the stage. And most importantly, the fewer classes you take, the more time you will have to see improv shows, which we will discuss next.

4. Go see improv shows. Especially at the place where you are taking classes.
This is an invaluable teaching tool. That’s why the schools offer the shows for free or for discount to students because they know how important it for improv students to watch improv. You can learn a lot by watching other performers. Also, if your teacher is improvising in a show, go check him or her out. I had a student who went to one of my long-form shows and came back to class angry at me because he saw me do something on stage that I told him not do in class. Like it or not, he brought in a point of reference and discussion that we all learned from, including me.

5. Express your feelings.
Express how you feel in the moment in your improv class. I love students who want to have an honest relationship with me and tell me how they are feeling. Most people think emotions don’t belong in class, but they do. Emotions are energy and they need to be expressed. Not expressing them can be damaging to your work and yourself. If an exercise puts you in your head or you think your teacher’s side coaching doesn’t help or you feel frustrated, let your teacher know about it. Don’t turn improv class into into therapy; just be clear and direct and move on.

6. Don’t show up to improv class, high, drunk or hungover.
If you are showing up to class high, drunk or hungover and think you’re getting the most out of the class, you are kidding yourself — you’re not! Your energy is off, your brain is foggy, your mind is not fully functioning, and everyone in the room knows it. They might not say anything, but they know it. If you are having a hard time showing up sober, you may want to look into that first.

7. Show up on time to your improv class.
Big revelation. This is probably one of the most simple and beneficial tips I can give. By showing up on time or even a couple of minutes early, you’ll have less shame for just barely making it into the room, you’ll be less anxious and more relaxed, which is the  perfect state to improvise.

8. Don’t miss more than one class per term and be aware when you do.
If you have to miss a class, let your teachers know by telling them or e-mailing them. This shows you are a professional and will help you make an impression. If you do miss a class, be aware that it may take you some time to get up to speed with the rest of the students in the following class. When a student misses, I have seen it take an hour to entire class for him to get back into rhythm with the class. If you are aware of this, you can go gently on yourself and not try to force things.

9. It’s better to miss part of the class than the whole thing.
If you can only come to a portion of the class and it’s not going to drive you crazy to get there, by all means, get your butt there. It’s your money, and if you show up, you will feel connected and it will make big difference in the following classes.

10. Ask questions when they come up. Don’t wait until everyone is gone.
I cannot tell you how common this is. After an improv class, a student will corner me or send me an e-mail and ask me “What do I need to work on?” I get it. It’s easier to ask questions one-on-one rather than in the group. But what they don’t get is they will get a far better answer if they ask those questions during the class, because they have the benefit of the entire class answering the question and not just me. Also, they are usually asking a question that would also benefit other students in the class.