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7 Secrets to Giving Great Improv Notes

As an improv director or coach, giving notes after a show is an art. Like improvising, you can only get better at teaching and directing improv by doing it and making a lot of mistakes along the way. Though my methods may seem a little unconventional, I wanted to share them with you because I know there are lots of people out there who have to give improv notes and feel like they don’t have much guidance in how to do it well.

If this is a skill you would like to sharpen, here are my 7 Secrets To Giving Great Improv Notes After A Show:

1. Make it a conversation, not a lecture
When you’re giving notes after a show, remember that you don’t have to carry the whole load yourself. You goal is for the group to take some responsibility for spotting their own “so called” mistakes — this strengthens the ensemble. After a show, before I open my big, fat mouth with some brilliance, I like to first ask the group, “How do you think the show went?” Then I ask, “What did you like about it? What could we have done better?”

I cannot tell you how important it is to get them to start talking first, so you can see where they are at and give yourself some direction about where you would like to go with your own feedback. You are following them. Sometimes, because their adrenalin is still going and their hearts are still pounding, they may not answer immediately. Don’t panic. Eventually they will participate. Remember, you are giving them an opportunity to be part of the conversation, and you will see big rewards if you let them join in.

2. Ask for Feedback
If you have specific note for a performer, first ask them the question: “Would you like feedback?” This may seem small, but it’s hugely important because it makes them more receptive to your note, and again, lets them take more responsibility for their own development. By asking if they want feedback before giving it, you build mutual respect and trust between you and the player, and it will also help you keep your ego in check.

3. Always start with something positive
I picked this up years ago from truly a master improv teacher at The Second City, the late Martin DeMaat. When he gave you notes, he always started with the positive notes first, what you did right, before going into the the trickier constructive criticism. When I remember to give positive notes first, I find that improvisers are less defensive and more receptive to the negative notes you give them.

4. Replace the word should with could
“Should” is a short fuse to the shame bomb. When players come off stage from an improv show, they are vulnerable. Respect that. They may feel excited, exposed, nervous, afraid, happy – and, yes, shame. If they are already feeling unsure about whether they screwed up, pointing out what they “should” have done is a sure way to make them feel even more shame. Or, on the flip side, if they felt they did a great show and are filled with joy, they may be looking for a buzz kill – that one thing that they did wrong that they can focus on. The quickest way to find that is with the word “should.” I have found replacing the word “should” with the word “could” makes a great substitute.

5. Think Macro vs. Micro
When you give comments to a group, instead of breaking down each scene, I think it’s better to make comments about the overall show. You might say something like, “Our edits were great, our energy and variety was awesome, and I loved seeing characters that I had never seen before. But I felt your energy was flat by the fourth scene, and I think we could have done more agreement. We seemed to be cherry picking ideas.” Similarly, when you give notes to individual players, focus on their patterns, rather than specific moves. For example, you could say, “In the first scene, you needed to agree right from the top, and later, in scene six, you also needed to agree right from the top.”

6. Focus on One or Two Ideas Per Person
When giving improv notes to specific improvisers in the group, you want to be concise and focus on only one or two areas where each person needs improvement. I have found as both a player and a coach/director that people can only absorb one or two things to work on from each notes session, so there is no sense flooding their circuits with too much information. Less is more.

7. Keep the notes session short
Giving notes after an improv show should not be a class. It’s not a lecture. Watch the clock. Keep the notes session short, whether it was a good show or a bad show. In Asaf Ronen’s book, Directing Improv, he gives a good rule of thumb: “If you are spending more then 10 minutes in notes after a show, you are trying to do too much.”

Next week, I’ll give some tips on how to give notes when you are experienced improv group who does not use a coach or director.

Do you have any tips on how to give good improv notes? I’d love your ideas.

Don’t miss your chance to study with Jimmy Carrane! His next Art of Slow Comedy: Advanced Ensemble Class starts April 15. The class runs Wednesdays from 6-8 p.m. Early Bird registration ends March 25, so sign up today!

9 replies
  1. Chris Murphy
    Chris Murphy says:

    I loved this list, such important advice!

    Sometimes I will allow the group to give notes to each other, but, I tell them to avoid telling other players how they would have done it.

    Instead of saying,”I would have played a stronger more focused objective in the 3rd scene…” a better way could be, “Your objective in the 3rd scene seemed unclear.”

    Great blog as always!

    Reply
  2. Josh Lenn
    Josh Lenn says:

    Great list. I have personally never been a huge fan of notes right after a show. I know it is common practice, but sometimes I feel it can be a buzzkill even if done well. What are your thoughts on this?

    Reply
  3. Jill
    Jill says:

    We video tape our shows. The rehearsal following our show we all gather around and take notes on two columns: Likes: What you liked about yourself and what you liked about the ensembles as a whole Skills to Work On: Both self and group as a whole. This really builds improvisors to start objectively looking at their own work and taste as artists- rather then being completely dependent on the director.

    Reply
  4. Jay Hopkins
    Jay Hopkins says:

    These are great guidelines. Student performers need encouragement and always feel judged by notes. When we tell them from the beginning they can’t be wrong, then give notes they get confused. I always state upfront when teaching or giving notes that “there is no right or wrong, but there ARE ways to be better or worse, and these are thoughts to help make better choices.” That always seems to help performers want the information as opposed to just feeling judged by an opinion.

    Reply
  5. Caspar
    Caspar says:

    About note 3.: Always start with something positive.

    An improv scene is never positive or negative. It can only work well or not work well. It can only have focus, or not have focus. As soon as you imply a viewpoint of “right” or “wrong” you will hinder a group and individual to gain a direct experience free of external measure as a judgement, (as Viola Spolin would call it) that makes you grow as a person. Starting with something positive is not the way to go!

    Reply
  6. Pete L
    Pete L says:

    Jimmy, this is absolutely brilliant stuff. I don’t think I can add anything to your list. (Just to your self-esteem).

    Reply

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