195: Jason Winer

Jason Winer is a director, an Emmy-award wining producer, and writer. He has directed and produced such hit sitcoms as Modern Family, Life in Pieces and The Crazy Ones. Jason studied at iO Chicago back in the late ’90s and was part of the team The Tribe. Jimmy talked to him about learning to improvise at young age thanks to his supportive parents, his initial reaction to Modern Family, and he how he works with actors.

8 Tips for Making Your Improv Group Stronger

Dealing with group dynamics in an improv group can be complicated. You’re dealing with egos and sensitive personalities, as well as a lot of people who probably came from dysfunctional families.

In my experience, most problems in improv groups occur when the group hasn’t authorized itself as a group. Basically, the group is wishy-washy about whether it truly wants to exist.

If you want to authorize yourselves, you need to make a commitment to each other, even for a short period of time, and openly discuss and agree on boundaries that work for the group. I believe with just little planning and lot of communication, you can turn any improv group around.

Here are my 8 tips for having a better improv group. Let me know how it works out.

1. Hire an outside eye
Instead of trying to give criticism to each other, which can create lots of tension, hire a coach or director. Make sure it’s someone you respect. If your group came out of class of a teacher you like and respect, hire that person right away! They’re the best place to start. If you are in a small town and have no outside eyes to hire you can use someone from inside the group, but the group should have an honest discussion about how long they want the person to coach and direct, and my suggestion is that person should not play with the group in rehearsals.

2. Pay your coach/director
The quickest way to authorize someone is to pay them money, so once you find a coach or director you want to work with, make sure you pay them and pay them well. Because you’re treating their input like a valuable service, you’ll get more out of it, and they’ll treat it like a job. By hiring a coach/director you are turning the creative vision over to them, and in the process they will authorize the group to do what it does, and that is improvise. Take my advice, best money you will ever spend.

3. Commit to a rehearsal schedule
Get the group to commit with not only their money but also with their time. Commit to your rehearsal like it’s a class, none of this pay-as-you-go bullshit. Let go of the “I have already paid for classes” mentality. Hopefully you will be paying for classes the rest of your life! If eight weeks with a coach costs the group $600, pay the coach/director half up front, or if you really trust them, pay them the whole amount up front and then see what kind of amazing work you have been missing. We call this commitment. (Be prepared for resistance. And remember, when group members bitch about paying someone, it’s never about the money, it’s about the commitment.)

4. Be accountable to each other
Make the director accountable to the group — you hired them, remember? And make the members accountable to each other. How does the group want to deal with members being late? How does the group want to handle missing rehearsals? How does the group want to handle if he director is late or misses? Think about these things ahead of time and set up consequences.

5. Set up clear time boundaries for the rehearsal period
Don’t keep you rehearsals open ended. If you’re going to rehearse for eight weeks, agree to a time and place, such as 7-9 p.m. on Wednesdays in the back room of Barry’s Bar. If it’s not scheduled in advance, no one can commit to it, and the group will fall apart.

6. Do not have rehearsals late at night
Having rehearsals at 10:30 p.m. or 11 p.m. on Tuesday nights makes no sense. Find a time when people can retain what they are learning. You are more productive in an earlier rehearsal and you’ll get more done.

7. Have regular meetings
As your first time commitment of eight weeks comes to an end, the group members should discuss what kind of commitment they want to make going forward. The problem with many groups in the beginning is nothing is talked about and everything is assumed. This sets up resentments which can kill a group like colon cancer. You need to keep talking to one another. Are you happy with the coach/director? Are you happy with the shows? The point is, by talking about it, the group members give each other the opportunity to negotiate among themselves.

8. Don’t avoid the business of the group
When you join a group and say “I just want to show up and play,” you’re essentially saying you do not want to fully join the group. The business of the group, whether that’s promoting or setting up clear boundaries, are as much a part of the learning and bonding process as the rehearsals and the performing. How you show up to the group is how you show up in your life.