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6 Steps to forming a great improv group

Today more than ever, improvisers are striking out on their own and forming independent groups. Nothing makes me happier than this because this is the way people really grow in improv.

However, just because you can form your own team doesn’t mean it’s going to be a success. Creating a group that really works requires commitment, chemistry and lots of energy.

I was involved in indie improv groups way before they used that name, and the one I was most proud of was the critically acclaimed long-form group Jazz Freddy. Recently, someone asked me what made that long-form group so successful, and I thought I would share with you what I learned from my experience.

1. Start with a vision

A group that doesn’t have a clear vision is going to have trouble sticking together, because it won’t be long before people won’t agree on what direction to take. When you’re picking improvisers to be part of your group, get like-minded people together and make sure they all buy into your vision.

With Jazz Freddy, Pete Gardner had a vision to do more patient, theatrical improv, and everyone who joined the group shared that vision. Though the show evolved and changed over time, as long-form shows do, the vision of the type and style of improv never did. When creative differences arose in the group, and they did, it was never about the vision. That was the one thing that was agreed upon from the outset.

2. Get good talent

When you’re forming an improv group, don’t pick your friends or your roommate just because you happen to hang out with them. Pick the very best people you can find, because there is no substitute for good talent. Without it, you have nothing, absolutely nothing. If you’re lucky enough to combine talent with commitment and a little vision, you have the opportunity to create something wonderful that will influence generations of improvisers.

3. Make the team your only focus

In Jazz Freddy, we made the show our #1 priority. We weren’t distracted by running across town doing other improv shows and classes because Jazz Freddy was the only thing we were doing. The only thing. It’s called singleness of purpose. We treated being part of Jazz Freddy like we had been cast in play at Steppenwolf. We rehearsed three or four times a week and we continued to rehearse once the show was up.

4. Make the hard decisions that are good for the group

I think one of the hardest and best decisions that we had to make as a group happened right before the second run of the show. A couple of cast members had been hired by Second City, and because of their schedules, they couldn’t make the rigorous time commitment to our rehearsals. So as a group, we decided they could not do the run, and with that decision, we were putting the good of the group ahead of the personalities.

5. Take ownership

When some improvisers join a group or a show, they say “I just want to show up and play.” That may work for them, but if you are looking to create something lasting and worth doing, you need people who are willing to do more than that. Everyone on the team needs to help out in some way: putting up fliers, doing social media, booking the venue, etc.

In Jazz Freddy, it was understood that cast members would help out with the producing responsibilities, meaning we would hang posters, get people to donate to our fundraiser, and talk it up with family and friends to get butts in the seats.

6. Invest in yourself

I know you’ve been spending a ton of money on classes and workshops, but if you want your group to be successful, you’re going to have to spend a little money – on posters, rehearsal space, Facebook ads and most importantly, a director. With Jazz Freddy, nobody thought that we were “done” or “above” having a coach. We were willing to pay for it because we were making an investment in ourselves, and it turned out to be a huge benefit because we learned from the show, and half the cast eventually worked at Second City.

Want to make your improv as easy as having a conversation? Sign up for Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 2 class, starting Feb. 28. Only $259 if you register by Feb. 14!

How to Kick Someone Out of Your Improv Group

Kicking a member out of your improv group is something nobody wants to do. Most groups avoid it because improvisers hate confrontation. But sometimes it has to happen, and if you do have to let someone go, remember what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. So here are some tips to help prevent you from having to kick a bad apple out of your improv group as well some tips for showing someone the door.

  1. Hire a Coach
    In a perfect world, when you first form an improv group you should pay (yes, with actual money) a director/coach, and as a group, you should authorize them to make all artistic and casting decisions. Then, with the group’s authorization, the coach can then be the hired gun to make the tough decisions about who should and should not be in the group.If you didn’t get a coach when you first started, it’s not too late to hire someone. When you hire someone, express your concerns about the person that you are having problems with, and ask them to work with the group for a minimum of several weeks so they can evaluate the situation and give you an outside opinion on what is going on and what actions need to be taken.
  2. Set Expectations
    Once you’ve formed an improv group, get everyone together and agree on your expectations for the group. What will the time commitment be? How many rehearsals do you plan to have? Are they going to be mandatory? What is the vision for the style of the show? It’s important these things are agreed upon, because then the group can hold members accountable later.Let’s say, a few months after you start playing together, there is an issue with a member showing up late for rehearsals. If they group has agreed that everyone is expected to be no more than 15 minutes late to rehearsals, then there can be consequences. That means you can talk to the person about something real versus just kicking them out because the person is a jerk on stage, though that may be an issue as well.Again, if you didn’t set expectations when you first started, again, do it now. Set a meeting time and get all of your expectations out on the table. Don’t be surprised that when the group sets expectations, it may correct some of the issues you are having with the person, or the person may leave on their own. Commitment will do that.
  1. Have Monthly Business Meetings
    The other thing improvisers hate beside confrontation is discussing the day-to-day business of the group. When you start your own independent improv group, it’s like you’re starting a business or a family. To have a functioning group, you have to make time to discuss things that can’t be addressed in an improv rehearsal. Set aside at least 30 minutes at the end of a rehearsal once a month to talk business and check in with the group. This allows for open communication where more dicey things can be addressed. This will hopefully cut down on the phone calls and texts about the “problem” person in the group, and hopefully, it will give the group the chance to deal with the issue before you have to say goodbye to them. And, if you do have to fire their ass, you have created a format to do it.
  2. Confront the Person In a Group Setting
    If you’ve tried the three points above and you still feel you have to kick someone out of your improv group, call a meeting of the whole group to confront the situation. Everyone needs to be there. Everyone. Sometimes just speaking the unspeakable can correct some of the issues. If you are working with a coach, ask the coach if he or she would be willing to be at the meeting. This may seem scary, but know that you are actually doing the person a favor by telling them how you feel.I know it will be hard to believe, but when I was in my late 20s and early 30s, other people in my groups confronted me on some stuff, and though it was  uncomfortable, it made me better and I wish they would have told me sooner.
  1. Stay Away from Blame
    When addressing the person, stay away from blame and instead speak in “I statements.” You can say things such as “I experience you as being a bully or steam rolling in our scenes,” or “I experience you not agreeing in scenes,” or “I experience you dominating the warm-up or playing angry in every scene.”Stay away from defending your point of view or getting into a he-said she-said situation. Let people air their issues with no judgement or without trying to fix them. I was in a group once where we confronted a member because of his type of play and overall attitude. It was difficult, but we stayed on point and tried not to make it personal. Our next show was great, and then the person decided to quit a month later.
  2. You Don’t Have to Make a Decision at the Meeting
    If you are like me, you probably let your resentments against the person build and build until when you finally call for the meeting, you want the person gone immediately. Instead, think of the meeting as a fact-finding mission. After the meeting, it may be clear to the group that this person has to go, or maybe the person will hear what you have to say and be willing to change. The group has to decide that if they want to give them a second chance. If you’re not sure about kicking them out, take time to think about it and call another meeting.
  3. Learn From It
    You’re not going to want to hear this, but the group has a part in this situation. Most likely, the group’s part is that everyone is afraid of confrontation, which is another word for good old-fashioned codependence. Whatever the reasons are, dealing with the situation head-on gives the group the opportunity to become stronger. Once a problem person is gone, think about what the group can do going forward to prevent this from happening again. (See the first three points I just laid out in this blog.)

Want to take your improv to the next level? Sign up for Jimmy Carrane’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 2 class, starting Nov. 2. (You don’t have to have taken Level 1 to participate). Only $259 if you register by Oct. 19. Sign up today!

8 Tips for Making Your Improv Group Stronger

Dealing with group dynamics in an improv group can be complicated. You’re dealing with egos and sensitive personalities, as well as a lot of people who probably came from dysfunctional families.

In my experience, most problems in improv groups occur when the group hasn’t authorized itself as a group. Basically, the group is wishy-washy about whether it truly wants to exist.

If you want to authorize yourselves, you need to make a commitment to each other, even for a short period of time, and openly discuss and agree on boundaries that work for the group. I believe with just little planning and lot of communication, you can turn any improv group around.

Here are my 8 tips for having a better improv group. Let me know how it works out.

1. Hire an outside eye
Instead of trying to give criticism to each other, which can create lots of tension, hire a coach or director. Make sure it’s someone you respect. If your group came out of class of a teacher you like and respect, hire that person right away! They’re the best place to start. If you are in a small town and have no outside eyes to hire you can use someone from inside the group, but the group should have an honest discussion about how long they want the person to coach and direct, and my suggestion is that person should not play with the group in rehearsals.

2. Pay your coach/director
The quickest way to authorize someone is to pay them money, so once you find a coach or director you want to work with, make sure you pay them and pay them well. Because you’re treating their input like a valuable service, you’ll get more out of it, and they’ll treat it like a job. By hiring a coach/director you are turning the creative vision over to them, and in the process they will authorize the group to do what it does, and that is improvise. Take my advice, best money you will ever spend.

3. Commit to a rehearsal schedule
Get the group to commit with not only their money but also with their time. Commit to your rehearsal like it’s a class, none of this pay-as-you-go bullshit. Let go of the “I have already paid for classes” mentality. Hopefully you will be paying for classes the rest of your life! If eight weeks with a coach costs the group $600, pay the coach/director half up front, or if you really trust them, pay them the whole amount up front and then see what kind of amazing work you have been missing. We call this commitment. (Be prepared for resistance. And remember, when group members bitch about paying someone, it’s never about the money, it’s about the commitment.)

4. Be accountable to each other
Make the director accountable to the group — you hired them, remember? And make the members accountable to each other. How does the group want to deal with members being late? How does the group want to handle missing rehearsals? How does the group want to handle if he director is late or misses? Think about these things ahead of time and set up consequences.

5. Set up clear time boundaries for the rehearsal period
Don’t keep you rehearsals open ended. If you’re going to rehearse for eight weeks, agree to a time and place, such as 7-9 p.m. on Wednesdays in the back room of Barry’s Bar. If it’s not scheduled in advance, no one can commit to it, and the group will fall apart.

6. Do not have rehearsals late at night
Having rehearsals at 10:30 p.m. or 11 p.m. on Tuesday nights makes no sense. Find a time when people can retain what they are learning. You are more productive in an earlier rehearsal and you’ll get more done.

7. Have regular meetings
As your first time commitment of eight weeks comes to an end, the group members should discuss what kind of commitment they want to make going forward. The problem with many groups in the beginning is nothing is talked about and everything is assumed. This sets up resentments which can kill a group like colon cancer. You need to keep talking to one another. Are you happy with the coach/director? Are you happy with the shows? The point is, by talking about it, the group members give each other the opportunity to negotiate among themselves.

8. Don’t avoid the business of the group
When you join a group and say “I just want to show up and play,” you’re essentially saying you do not want to fully join the group. The business of the group, whether that’s promoting or setting up clear boundaries, are as much a part of the learning and bonding process as the rehearsals and the performing. How you show up to the group is how you show up in your life.

Making a Commitment

Upright Citizens Brigade foundersMaking a Commitment to your Improv Group

Long-form improvisation has been booming in the last ten years, but for some reason, there still only seem to be a handful of improv groups that are truly great.

We all know them. We all inspire to be like them. Then why aren’t there more? The answer is simple. It’s the thing that is hardest to do in life, and even harder to do in a group, and that’s called commitment. I’ve seen it firsthand. I have performed in, directed, and watched good groups become great because of it, and I’ve seen groups with great potential die without it.

Back in the ’90s, there was a group here in Chicago called The Upright Citizens Brigade. You may have heard of them. It was made up of Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts. After a couple of years of success here in Chicago, the group decided to move to New York with a lot of raw talent, a vision and most importantly, a commitment to each other. (It has been rumored that Besser picked New York over LA so the group would not get cherry picked by talent agents and people in the biz.)

Years ago, I interviewed Matt Walsh on public radio and he told me that once they got to New York, the four of them would get together every year and make a commitment to the group for the following year. They didn’t just assume they had a commitment to each other; instead, they all sat down and said it out loud.

In the sometimes passive world of improvisation, that commitment paid off, leading to a TV series on Comedy Central and the creation of a theater and a training center in both New York and Los Angeles. Whether they knew it or not, they were creating something bigger than the four of them combined. Today, the UCB is one of the most respected institutions in comedy, and that came directly from commitment.

A little before the time the UCB left to go to New York, I was lucky enough to be part of a long-form group in Chicago called Jazz Freddy. Our show was ground breaking; we took long-form and turned it into theater. Sure, we had some talent and we had a vision to play a certain style, but what made our group great was our commitment to each other and to our process. We agreed that we were going to treat Jazz Freddy like getting cast in a play. We freed up our schedules to work only on the show. We rehearsed three times a week for six weeks, and if you had too many conflicts you were out of the cast.

Years later Dave Koechner, a member of the group, told me that he thought maybe we were a little too harsh with all of the commitment we demanded. I disagree. I think we put the process first and the personalities second, and because of it we became a cohesive group. People started to notice us. Some people in the cast who had been forgotten by Second City got hired off of our show, and we began to get respect.

In this sometimes lazy art form, improvers have to realize that great groups don’t just fall out of the sky. If you want to take your improv group from good to great, you must start by making a commitment to each other. Once that happens, watch out. The next thing you know people will be taking you seriously, and with that will come respect, admiration and influencing others.

Commitment can transcend talent, but sadly, most improvisers never even give it a try to find out.

Today, I know it may be unrealistic to have a group to commit to a year together without doing any other shows. Usually improvisers are afraid they’ll miss out on other performance opportunities that will come along. So what if you committed for a run of a show, really committed like you had been cast in a play? Spend eight weeks working with just one group, and then you are free to do as you please. What is the worst thing that could happen?

Maybe five years from now some young students will come up to you at a bar and say “I saw your show, and I went back to my group and said ‘Let’s do what they are doing!’” Would that be so bad?

Answers To Your Improv Questions

Jimmy Carrane improv questionsAnswers to Your Improv Questions

Thank you to all of you Improv Nerds for sending in questions. We were originally going to answer these questions on the Improv Nerd podcast, but I was so excited to answer them, I couldn’t wait, so I decided to answer some in today’s blog.

Feel free to keep sending me questions about improve to improvnerdquestions@gmail.com. If I have not gotten to your question yet, don’t worry. I will answer it soon either on the Improv Nerd podcast or in blog form.

Q. What are your thoughts on: a) Rehearsing as an improv troupe and b) Rehearsing with a coach versus without a coach? I find lately that all I want to do is have drinks and eat and connect with my troupe instead of the actual rehearsal part. Is this type of connection a decent substitute? And I’ve had moments where I want a coach, but others where I don’t. There are times when I feel like I can’t say what I want to say without a coach, but majority rules out getting one. Do you think it’s always best to have a mediator?
— Teresa

A.Teresa, a social activity with your improv troupe every once in while is OK, but going out with your group for drinks or dinner is not a substitute for a rehearsal. In a group, you are striving to build a strong ensemble, and that is built in rehearsals, not at the bar. If you enjoy hanging out with your group you can always meet them before or after rehearsal.

In terms of getting a coach, I don’t understand why people resist it. I need all the help I can get. The thing is, improv is not about mastering it, it’s about continuing to learn it. I used to play with Carl and The Passions at iO-Chicago, a group that had some of the most experienced improvisers in the country including TJ Jagodowski and Noah Gregoropoulos. And guess what? We had a coach, and we paid him.

From your question, it sounds like things are not being said and the group is lacking vision and avoiding commitment. If your group wants to go the next level, you need to hire a coach/director. By “hiring” a coach/director you are making a commitment to your group, and once you do, your ensemble will get stronger, which will lead to great improvising. Even if you only try it for a month or six weeks, the group will get stronger. (Warning: some people may leave.)

Q. I’ve taken three improv classes thus far and feel my biggest weakness is my character work. Whenever I am in a scene, I feel like my characters are more or less just a slightly altered version of myself. I realize this may be kind of a broad question, but any tips or suggestions on how I can improve my character work?
— Terry

A. Terry, Terry, Terry. Three improv classes is too soon to start worrying that you’re “not good” at character work. Everyone approaches characters differently. With only three improv classes under your belt, you are in the research and development stage, finding what works for you. Del Close used to say wear your characters like a loose garment. To me, a character is simply a point of view. Some people do it by changing their voice or physically changing their body. Others just act like themselves with a strong point of view. Since you are in class, this is a great time to experiment, my suggestion would be to start with an attitude and then heighten it with a voice or a physicality and see how it feels. Remember, don’t compare yourself to others. That’s not helpful, unless you are looking for more self-loathing or a buzz kill. Focus on what you are doing right and the basics you are learning right now, and most importantly, have fun. Let me know how it works out.
Q. My level 5 coach told our class, “You don’t learn how to do improv in class; you learn to do it on stage. Class teaches you the skills to be on stage.” How do you feel about that?
— Steve

A. Your coach is sharing his or her experience with you, same as I am doing with you right now. I think taking improv classes and performing are both forms of learning, and both are necessary. One cannot exist without the other. It’s like in sports: you have practice before the game. Or in theater when you have rehearsals before a play. Without them you slow down your learning. That being said, my experience is you will learn faster in front of an audience, and even faster if you are taking classes in conjunction with improvising in front of a live audience. In my Art of Slow Comedy improv class, I teach a certain style of improvisation, but most importantly, I teach ensemble, meaning the players learn to support and trust each other. How will they execute the basic tenets of improvisation? That can only be tested in front of the audience, where the stakes are higher and I am out of the equation. They need to rely on each other, and because of that the learning is more immediate. From my perspective, performing with a strong ensemble in front of a live audience will go beyond anything I teach in my improv classes.