In improv, we are always striving to be authentic on stage, but teaching authenticity can be a tricky thing.
One of the people who taught it the best was Del Close, an improv teacher I studied with who influenced a generation of comedians from Bill Murray to Chris Farley to Tina Fey to Amy Poehler to Jimmy Carrane. (Like how I slipped my name in there?)
He was not the nurturing type, nor was he the best hands-on teacher. He could be impatient and intimidating and get frustrated with his students.
But what Del was great at was inspiring you to take risks and be yourself. He taught me to experiment. He loved experimenting as much as he loved failing.
He taught me to respect this art form, and by doing it, I was respecting myself.
He taught me to look for the truth in comedy, and he taught me that if you are patient in your scenes, you will give your characters time to feel.
When I studied with him back in ’80s, his time directing at Second City and The Committee was behind him, and he was more interested in exploring what improv itself could be.
He brought things from his life and what was going on in the world into his class to examine them.
Del would read a book or watch some documentary on Joseph Campbell and then want to use what he had learned as a jumping-off point for that class. He wasn’t afraid to share his outside interests with the class. That’s what inspired him. And as a teacher, you have to be inspired yourself to inspire others.
Del was not afraid that what he brought in wouldn’t apply to improv. He trusted us as a class to see if we could make it fit. Sometimes we found it and sometimes we didn’t even come close. The only thing that mattered to Del is we tried.
Del never, ever worried about what his students thought about him. He taught us to be authentic by being authentic himself.
It took me a long time to understand this. When I first started teaching, I thought that to be a good improv teacher, you had to teach a certain set of exercises just right, and you had to get people to like you. I was too focused on doing it perfectly and not screwing up. I was hiding. Holding myself back from the class.
Things finally started to change for me when I realized I needed to start bringing my own interests into my class.
I have been in group therapy for 10 years and in 12-step programs for even longer, so part of my interests lie in getting in touch with your emotions and applying principals such as letting go and trusting the group process.
When I started to use some of these tools that applied to improv in my classes, things started to change. I started having more fun, and my students started to gain confidence and their work got better. Though we never discussed specifics, together we were challenging each other.
Don’t kid yourself. As a teacher, the students are very tuned in to you. They pick up if you are excited about something or just phoning it in, and when you are bringing more of your own interests and passions into class, they will benefit from it.
It is hard to teach your students to be more honest and real when you are worried what they are going to think of you. Authenticity goes both ways. You can’t give away something you don’t have.