Shad Kunkle is an improviser, actor, teacher, and comedian. He has been playing with the iO Harold team Carl and The Passions for 20 years, he toured with Second City and understudied the Main Stage. We talked to him about the importance of focusing on the other person, being selfless as an improv coach/director, and how he uses short form to help his long form.
Last week, I talked about how to give good improv notes if you are an improv coach or director. This week, I’m going to give some tips on how to give improv notes to your own teammates — a much trickier proposition.
First, let me say, if you are part of an improv group and you aren’t using an improv coach because you don’t want to spend the money or you think you are “beyond” having a coach, stop reading right now and go get one. You’ll thank me later.
However, if you are part of a group of improvisers who can’t get an improv coach – maybe because your group is made up of the most experienced people in your community – then you are in the unfortunate situation of having to coach yourselves. This can be really tricky, because you don’t want to be too critical of your own teammates, but it can be done.
In fact, I have been on many self-coached teams and groups over the years. Here’s what has worked for me.
1. Use “I” statements
The number one thing you want to avoid when you’re coaching yourselves is blame, whether you’re blaming the group or an individual. Sometimes it’s ok to blame the audience, but do it sparingly. Instead, get in the habit of commenting on what you did or did not do well in the show. You can say things like, “I was totally lost in the opening,” or “I really liked the scene I did with Jenny, it was so much fun.” It seems small, but it’s important because you are sharing your experience, which is all you ever have to share, rather than telling someone else what they did wrong. You may think its a small thing, but it will set you up for the next step.
2. Own Your Part
My experience with working with people who have been improvising a long time is they don’t want to call out other people’s behavior or give other performers notes. That means it’s up to each individual to be honest, vulnerable and take responsibility for their moves. This will give other people in the group permission to do the same. For example, you might say something like, “When you came into the scene, I was confused about whether you were doing a call back or not from the beginning.” By you admitting that you were confused, you may get them to admit that they were confused, too.
3. Ask the Group Questions
Remember, the goal is to learn from each other, not tell each other what to do. That is how you get better. One thing I do to learn from other members is to ask them questions. For example, you might say, “What could I have done to make it clearer that I was doing a call back?” Or you could say, “I thought the opening seemed flat. What did you guys feel?” If you get a lot of heads nodding, you could say, “How could we have done differently for the next time?” I have always found this helpful.
4. Don’t Dominate the Discussion
Just like you don’t want to be in every scene in an long form improv show, you also don’t want to be dominating the notes session. If you realize you are dominating, then maybe you’d secretly like to direct. Be aware that if you hijack the notes session, others may be less inclined to be involved in the discussion. If you find that happening, stop and ask them what they thought, or just take a break and let some else lead. Not everyone is going to want to participate and that is fine. Your job is provide some room every now and then so other people can.
5. Bring in your sense of humor
Just like the improv show, make the notes session fun. When I played with Carl and The Passions at iO Chicago, with TJ Jagodowski, Noah Gregoropoulos, Bill Boehler, Shad Kunkle, Jordan Klepper, Katie Rich, and Paul Grondy, I sometimes had a better time in the notes session than I did during the show because weren’t taking what we did on stage or ourselves too seriously. I cannot express how crucial this is, because sometimes improvisers want to make their improv life and death, and it’s not.
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What we do is pretty amazing. We get up in front of people and make shit up. And regardless if we suck or not that night, we are brave for just getting up there. And we need to give ourselves credit for that fact alone. I know a lot of you are refusing to give yourself kudos for your shows because you’re telling yourself you are not as good as TJ and Dave, so I am going to give them to you right now: “You are great. You are courageous. You are talented.”
Now if your head is going, “Jimmy doesn’t know me. He is full of shit. How does he know if I am talented or not? This blog sucks. Jimmy sucks,” welcome to the club. This is the negative talk in your head, and it has nothing to do with me or my lousy blog. It has to do with you. Are you willing to be gentle on yourself until you get the place where you think you are good at this? Are you willing to give yourself props regardless what level you are at for trying one of the scariest art forms out there?
My guess is, if you are like me, probably not. You are more interested in beating yourself up after a bad show or comparing yourself to others. Great, I get it. Believe me I don’t want to ruin your pity party, but here is another way to look at it.
Improvising in front of an audience is a very vulnerable experience. As soon as we step on stage, we have come out of hiding. We are getting bigger. We are willing to be seen. All this is terrifying. And regardless if we have a killer show or we bomb miserably, we will have feelings. Intense feelings that will overpower us. We tell ourselves we should have certain feelings based on how we did on stage or in class. Good Show = Happy. Bad Show = Suicidal Thoughts. That is bullshit. I’ve had great shows and felt awful and had awful shows and felt great.
And here is the best part, are you ready? Most of the time I can’t tell you if I had a good show or not because my perception is all screwed up.
This is especially true for beginners, because you have no reference point for what a good or bad show feels like. And while some people may be able to do their first show and feel great, it make take other people many, many shows before they can feel comfortable afterwards.
I still lose my perspective on what is a good or bad show. Last summer, I sat in with my old team, Carl and The Passions, at IO-Chicago. This is a team filled with some of the best improvisers in the country. I felt rusty. I felt in my head until about three-quarters of the way through the Harold. I got off stage and was filled with shame and convinced myself I sucked. That night, I put myself to sleep with those thoughts and woke up thinking I was the biggest piece of shit in improv. A couple of days later I ran into to Dina Facklis, whose team, Virgin Daiquiris, had shared the bill with us that night, and she said “Are you going to come back and play with Carl because my friend said you where her favorite.”
I had not even thought about that. I was too busy thinking of ways of how I could kill myself. I was also grateful that she said that, because I had lost any perception of my work. It reminded me that I am better than I give myself credit for, and I am still way too hard on myself. And that those affirmations that I so generously gave to you also apply to me: “I am great. I am courageous. I am talented.”
Is your goal in improv to never have a bad show, scene, class or rehearsal? If so you are doomed. Get out while you can.
Improvising is not an exact science. You are never going to master it. That’s why some of us are in it for life.
What you need to be striving for is always challenging yourself to leave your comfort zone. That’s where the learning will be the fastest.
How will you know you are outside your comfort zone, you ask? You will feel uncomfortable, frustrated and out of control.
I have seen this hundreds of times: A student or even a whole class leaves a class frustrated, feeling like they’re not very good and never going to “get it,” and then they show up the next week and they’re different, like they’ve passed a kidney stone, and they knock it out of the park. What happens between classes, I don’t know, but I think it’s the classes where they feel frustrated are actually the ones where they’re learning the most.
I saw it last night in my Art of Slow Comedy class. A couple of my students were really brave and shared with the class the frustrations they were having with their improvising. One guy thought he was not getting it, and another woman said she was more comfortable with more structure. Both were frustrated.
I am proud they spoke up. It takes courage to not sit on your feelings and instead put a voice to them, and if they knew it or not, the students were helping the class tremendously. The class gave them feedback, although sometimes students don’t even need feedback, they just need to speak about how they’re feeling.
I shared with the class that I have done a thousand bad scenes to get where I am today, and you know what? I still have thousands of bad shows left in me. That is humbling and discouraging at the same time. For me it is a fact. I’ve performed with a lot of groups over the years and we have had good shows and bad shows. The better the team, the fewer bad shows we had, but we still had bad shows.
I was on Carl and The Passions at IO-Chicago with some of the best improvisers around, and we had a running joke that when Shad Kunkle, Bill Boehler and I would come out and do a scene together, it would go nowhere. We called it the Bermuda Triangle of Improv. You would think with the years that we all had been doing it, we would be killing it every night. Not true. Yes, we had killer shows, shows that were so great you had a high for days afterwards, but we still had bad shows, bad rehearsals and bad scenes.
I believe it was Mick Napier who said that the goal of improv is not to be perfect, it’s just to increase your percentage of your success rate. Nobody is going to have a 100 percent success rate. Nobody is going to be the perfect improviser. It’s like saying you’re going to 1000% percent hitter in baseball. It’s never happened because the game isn’t designed that way. Same with improvising.
So save yourself some time and misery and accept the bad shows, rehearsals and classes as part of the process. Nobody understands the pain of that more than I do. I’ve written about how I often want to kill myself after a bad show. That has not changed. But in my despair, I try to remember “If you want to do something well, you need to do it poorly first.”
So if you’re goal has always been to perfect improv, my suggestion is to throw that out and get a new goal. If you want to, you can use mine: To have better bad shows.