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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.

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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?