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Creating a Sense of Community

One of the greatest privileges of being an improviser is feeling like you are part of a community. That sense of belonging is actually what attracted me to improv in the first place, I just didn’t realize it at the time. In fact, many of the bonds that I formed with my fellow improvisers have turned into friendships that have lasted more than 25 years.

And one of the coolest things about being an improv teacher is being able to foster this sense of community for others. Over the years, sometimes the students in my Art of Slow comedy classes will decide after their performance that they want to form a group. Nothing makes me feel more proud than when students click so well together that they want to from their own independent group.

Recently, some of my students did just that. They are going by the name of Improv Bus. They have set up a regular rehearsal schedule and they have hustled to get a bunch of shows. They have brought me in to coach them for a couple of rehearsals. But the thing that impresses me the most is how supportive they are of one another. They make plans to go and see one member’s play or another person’s show at iO.

This reminds me of when I first started out, and we’d go to other people’s shows and afterwards we’d hang out in late-night diners drinking coffee and eating stale pie, talking about how we were going to change improv forever.

Those were the best times in improv, just hanging out. There was hope in those days. There was fellowship. There was fun.

Improv has gotten enormous since I started. I hate to sound like that grizzly old man sitting at the end of the bar who says shit like, “In the olds days in Chicago, if you wanted to be part of the improv community, all you needed to do was take a class.” That has not only changed in Chicago, but elsewhere as well. I hear from people across the country about how they feel improv has become cliquey. Not inclusive. This makes me sad.

As a teacher, I want to give people that feeling of belonging that I got when I first started out. It’s harder for people to find that today, unfortunately. But it is there, and one way to find it, apparently, is to take the right people and put them on a bus.

Attention improvisers! Today is your last chance to snag the Early Bird Special pricing for Jimmy’s next Art of Slow Comedy Level 2 class, starting Sept. 6. Sign up today!

Why I Still Do Improv

What still excites me about improv after all these years? I get this question a lot. And the answer may surprise you. It is the teaching. I love teaching. I love teaching improv even more than doing shows or the podcast Improv Nerd.

And this will blow your mind coming from Mr. Self-Hatred and Self-Loather himself, I am great at it. In fact, I am a terrific improv teacher and I keep getting better. I have put more time and energy into becoming a better improv teacher than becoming a better performer, which is how I have become so incredible at it. (Now even I am getting uncomfortable). I think the fact that I can admit that I think I’m good at it is quite an accomplishment. Let’s move on.

There are so many things I love about teaching improv, but one of the biggest ones is being able to create a sense of community for people. I love taking a group of strangers — it doesn’t matter if it’s a three-hour, one-day workshop in Omaha or a six-week class in Chicago — and creating a place where students feel safe taking risks, being vulnerable and making lots of mistakes. At the end, the students will say they feel “bonded” or “really close to one another.” That is community. And that is the thing that brings me so much pride and joy as an improv teacher.

I cannot think of a better gift to give people than a sense of belonging. You cannot have group mind without it. You cannot build trust without it. Support does not exist without it. Having a sense of community is what attracted me to this crazy art form in the first place as lost teenager more than 30 years ago, and it’s why it’s so hard to leave. Community is the number one reason improvisers do improv in the first place and they are not even aware of it. Why else would you choose an art form that relies on other people?

The biggest compliment you can give me besides “You are the best improv teacher” is to tell me that you made friends in my classes and workshops and you stay in touch with them.

In the years since I started doing improv, I have seen it grow up from being a local thing that was unique to Chicago to a global thing that’s done across the world. But despite how widespread improv has become, the thing that’s as still true today as it was when I started out is that everyone is striving for that sense of acceptance and that feeling of belonging.

I know as read this, you might have been kicked off a Harold team or never made one or auditioned for shows and never got cast and you feel that you never became part of the community that you wanted. But the beautiful thing about the size of improv today is that people are creating their own communities. Smaller sub-communities. Musical improv is its own community, and inside that community are even more sub-communities.

Nothing makes me more proud than when my students create their own shows or start their own groups or find a theater that they call home. And I can’t think of anything better than if they start coaching and teaching and take what they have learned from me to bring even more people that sense of community around the world.