Jimmy teaching improv

5 secrets for coaching and teaching improv

I am so happy to see so many more people wanting to become improv coaches and teachers. That was not true when I started, where we all wanted to be performers and if you said you wanted to be a teacher it was like you were selling out. I am so glad that times have changed, and I feel a sense of pride when students tell me that what they really want to do with improv is teach.

So for those out there who want to be better teachers, here are my five secrets to being a better improv teacher or improv coach. And guess what? Some of these are actually not very different than the skills you need for improvising on stage, as well.

1. Improvise along with the group
If you are teaching or coaching improvisation, you might want to think about using a little of it in the classroom or rehearsals.

When I go on stage to improvise and have an agenda, I’m toast. Same concept applies to teaching and coaching. Ninety percent of the time I go into my class with no agenda, no lesson plan. I wait for it to appear from the group. That forces me to listen to and build off what they have brought in for the day, making me a more attentive teacher to their actual needs. By not having an agenda, I have to be present and respond in the moment because I do not know where this is going. Sound familiar?

If I get lost halfway through class, I will ask for the group’s input about what to do next. I might say something like, “I have two things in mind: a group exercise or a two-person exercise. Which way do you want to go?”

Suggestion: For your next class or rehearsal, go in with nothing planned and trust that the group will pull from you all that you need in terms of exercises and games that will apply to what they need to work on for that session. Don’t worry — if you’ve been improvising for several years, you’ll remember lots of exercises in the moment.

2. Think about what you’re going to learn in class vs. what you’re going to teach
There is a phrase that teachers like to say: “I learn so much for my students.” This often sounds like bullshit, but really, it’s not if you are willing to humble enough to realize that teaching is a two-way relationship. I can’t tell you how many games, exercises and forms I have poached from my students because they were generous enough to show them to the class. Just last session, I learned a form called Mono-scene from one of my students and I love it.

Suggestion: The next time a student has an idea for a game or an exercise or form and it fits in the moment, jump on it. If you feel scared and bit out of control, those are the right feelings, and they mean that you’ve just taken the plunge into the cold arctic waters called “growing.”

3. Remember, you are an expert, not a know-it-all
If you try to teach improv thinking you have all the answers, you are fucked. That’s not teaching, it’s just managing your image, and nothing is more boring for you or your students. When you act like you have all the answers, you are not in relationship with your students. Remember, the answers are always in the room, meaning together we (teacher + students) can come up with a better answer than if we relied on the one egotistical teacher in the room. Sometimes you will get a question and the answer is clear. Most times it’s not. That is why I turn it to over to the rest of the class to come up with an answer. When I do that, it becomes a discussion and nine times out of ten my students are much more articulate than I am about the answer.

Suggestion: Next time you get a question in class, ask the class what they think before you put your two cents in. Listen like you would on stage and see what kind of answers you ALL come up with.

4. Shut the fuck up
If you have not figured it out yet, improvisation is experiential learning, meaning people learn by doing it. The more that students do it, the more they will learn. If you’re spending too much time talking as the teach, you’re going to put people in their heads. You don’t want them trying to figure things out in their seats, you want them figuring it out on their feet. Students retain things much better when they are actually performing, and you as the teacher or coach do not have to work so damn much with your mouth.

Suggestion: If you are trying to make a point and you have a game or exercise that your class could do that would illustrate that point instead of you talking, have them do it! Cut your brilliant lecture and go right into the exercise and game.

5. Finding your voice as a teacher and coach take time
Just because you are great improviser does not mean you will be a great teacher. You may become a great teacher, but I am here to tell you it will take time. Finding your voice in the classroom is no different than finding it on stage. Unfortunately, not all the credits transfer. The same way you got good at improvising is the same way you will continue to get better as a coach or a teacher, and that is by screwing up. The master teachers like Susan Messing, Brian Posen and Mick Napier did not become great teachers overnight. We can only become great by screwing up millions and millions of times. The more we screw up the closer we become to becoming a master.

Suggestion: Screw up. Many, many times. Keep screwing up.

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5 replies
  1. Dan Sipp
    Dan Sipp says:

    I’ve gotten much better about not planning out a class or rehearsal too much. I agree 100% that a class you arrive at spontaneously – by feeling and observing what the students need at that moment — feels awesome when it works. And it usually does. I still talk too much, though. I’ll be working on that as a teacher till the day I die.

  2. Greg Morelli
    Greg Morelli says:

    I’m going to name-drop, so forgive me.

    I place you atop a short-list of brilliant teachers I’ve been graced with studying under: Armando Diaz, Ali Faranakian, Ed Herbstman, Susan Messing and Jen Nails.

    I have no interest in teaching. I have no interest in coaching. I still haven’t had the opportunity for an extended run as a performer, on stage, so instead, I have allowed myself to become a perpetual student.

    Who knows if I’ll ever find the right theater to have an extended run. Who knows if I’ll ever discover the full-range of my voice as a performer. Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t.

    Either way, I’m happy with my process.

    But you should know, Jimmy Carrane, how motherfucking hard you rock as an improvisor, teacher and coach. You’re the very definition of a Triple Threat.

  3. Dan Richter
    Dan Richter says:

    Yes and no.
    I think it’s a question of finding the right balance.
    1) I think it’s a great think to go along with what the class needs to throw any agenda or concept overboard. However, I still think it’s good to have a concept or even an agenda when you arrive. Preparation at home is useful. The teacher/coach can think about the developments the class has taken. This is especially the case if it’s a continuous workshop. I need to know my class. It may take some time to develop a new smart game. It’s cool if they arise on the spot, but good games can be developed on the sofa with closed eyes.

    4) You are right. Experience is the most important thing in the class. I tell my students to write notes at home, not during class. However, some theoretical thoughts might be necessary from time to time. It depends on where we are, what we are doing. I think students need to know what to focus on. Also when they’re not performing but only watching, they should learn how to see. Some games are self-explanatory, some forms need a little more explanation. Some students need more guidance than others. As an improv student I didn’t like two kinds of teachers: those who were talking all the time, and those who let us just play games, games, games until the class was over.

  4. E k
    E k says:

    I tried to tell my teacher this today to no avail cuz I he became defensive. The most awful thing he did is not even on the list. Yuck.

  5. Pat Cradit
    Pat Cradit says:

    I don’t know you, but I know that your unprofessional language doesn’t add two cents to what you know. I clicked on your sight to learn something, but was so displeased with the language used (let’s remember that kids use the Internet too) that I will seek other sources.


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