When it comes to teaching improv, I am old school. Though I have evolved as a teacher and performer over the years, one thing that has not changed since I started teaching is that I love beginning each improv class or workshop with a series of warm-up games.
Warm-up games are essential. This is something I learned from one of my favorite improv teachers, Martin DeMaat. Some improv teachers don’t see the importance of them. They want to cut right to scene work or throw the students right into doing a Harold.
Yes, warm-up games take time. Yes, they seem silly and not as important as going right into working on scenes or a long form. I can assure you, however, that by playing warm-up games, students can go deeper and be more grounded in their scenes, not to mention take more risks, if they have warmed up first.
- So, what is the point of warm-up games for the students?
It is simple. To get them to play without self-consciousness or judgment. Warm-up games serve as the bridge between a student’s day and the class, workshop or rehearsal. It is the foreplay before sex.So, as a teacher or director, it’s very important to not give many notes, if any, during the warm-up game section of improv class because that takes away the point of making it a time to relax and open up. Occasionally I’ll guide my students during warm-up games, but I am very cautious.
After many years, I have come to the conclusion that it’s not even important for the students to get the games “right.” It’s just about playing. Pure play doesn’t have rules. It transforms from one thing to the next. I will tell my students the directions of a warm-up game just as a starting off point. If it transforms, it doesn’t matter. I love watching a class take zip zap zop and morphing it into different sounds and words and then it turns into a game where they are passing and transforming objects. Watching this, you think, this can go on for hours, they are in the zone of free play.
Even if you warm them up by doing a series of short scenes, hold your tongue, because the beginning of class should be all about them getting out there and playing. I often look at it like, let’s get the crappy scene out of the way first so we can do some good ones later.
- How can warm-up games help the teacher?
Using warm-up games at the beginning of the class is a great way, as a teacher, to get connected to the class so you can assess their energy for that day. Students will bring in a different energy to each improv class or rehearsal, and as the teacher/director, it is your job to assess it so you can adjust your teaching to how they are feeling in that particular moment.I remember one time my students came into class all tired and with low energy. Maybe it was the weather or the traffic or that they had just had a shitty day at work, but when they began to warm up, they looked like they were zombies. They had brought their day into class, which gave me an opportunity to make an adjustment. I had them walk around the room and talk about their shitty day and how they were feeling. This helped me know where they were at so I didn’t need to take it personally and so I could keep adjusting to their energy. And once they had a chance to speak about how they were feeling, their negative energy seemed to lift.
- How long should you have the class play warm up games?
Every improv class is different, so this is where you need to trust your instincts. A good rule of thumb that I picked up from Martin De Maat is that you should continue to play warm up games until they are laughing and having a good time. If that is the case, you have connected their head with their body and the laughter means they are open to learning. My experience is some classes take longer than others to get to this stage based on the group and the day and even the size of the class.
Next week we’ll talk about my favorite warm-up games.