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10 ways to get more out of your improv class

Many people think that improv is something people are just “naturally” good at. If you’re born funny, you can make people laugh, right? Not so. If you want to get better, you’re going to have to study this art form and take a lot of classes before you get good. It’s just a fact. And unfortunately, improv classes aren’t cheap. So if you’re going to be shelling out a lot of money for improv classes, you might as well get the most out of them, right? Here are my top 10 tips for getting the most out of your improv class:

1. Find out who the teacher is before you sign up.
An improv school is only as good as its teachers, and you want to be studying with the best. So before you sign up for an improv class, find out who is teaching the class. If you are new in town and don’t know the reputation of certain teachers, find someone who does. Go to a teacher you respect or another student and ask them. It’s your time and your money. Whatever you do, don’t make this decision alone.

2. Decide what you want from improv.
Improv has become diversified lately. People ask me all the time when they finish the Art of Slow Comedy improv class, “What should I do next?” Before I give them an answer, I ask them what they want to achieve. Are you an actor who wants to use improv to strengthen your on-camera auditions? Do you want to do long-form, short-form or use improv as a tool to write sketch? Get specific on what you want from improv; this will help you decide where the best place is for you to study.

3. Take no more than two improv classes at a time.
I really like to say if you are in a level system at one of the big institutions, only take one class at a time. I know that is not realistic with today’s improviser, so, I will say at the very most, take no more than two classes at a time. Why, you ask? So you don’t get confused with the different approaches. Too much running around town from one class to the next gives you no time to have a life outside of improv so you don’t have any life experiences to bring to the stage. And most importantly, the fewer classes you take, the more time you will have to see improv shows, which we will discuss next.

4. Go see improv shows. Especially at the place where you are taking classes.
This is an invaluable teaching tool. That’s why the schools offer the shows for free or for discount to students because they know how important it for improv students to watch improv. You can learn a lot by watching other performers. Also, if your teacher is improvising in a show, go check him or her out. I had a student who went to one of my long-form shows and came back to class angry at me because he saw me do something on stage that I told him not do in class. Like it or not, he brought in a point of reference and discussion that we all learned from, including me.

5. Express your feelings.
Express how you feel in the moment in your improv class. I love students who want to have an honest relationship with me and tell me how they are feeling. Most people think emotions don’t belong in class, but they do. Emotions are energy and they need to be expressed. Not expressing them can be damaging to your work and yourself. If an exercise puts you in your head or you think your teacher’s side coaching doesn’t help or you feel frustrated, let your teacher know about it. Don’t turn improv class into into therapy; just be clear and direct and move on.

6. Don’t show up to improv class, high, drunk or hungover.
If you are showing up to class high, drunk or hungover and think you’re getting the most out of the class, you are kidding yourself — you’re not! Your energy is off, your brain is foggy, your mind is not fully functioning, and everyone in the room knows it. They might not say anything, but they know it. If you are having a hard time showing up sober, you may want to look into that first.

7. Show up on time to your improv class.
Big revelation. This is probably one of the most simple and beneficial tips I can give. By showing up on time or even a couple of minutes early, you’ll have less shame for just barely making it into the room, you’ll be less anxious and more relaxed, which is the  perfect state to improvise.

8. Don’t miss more than one class per term and be aware when you do.
If you have to miss a class, let your teachers know by telling them or e-mailing them. This shows you are a professional and will help you make an impression. If you do miss a class, be aware that it may take you some time to get up to speed with the rest of the students in the following class. When a student misses, I have seen it take an hour to entire class for him to get back into rhythm with the class. If you are aware of this, you can go gently on yourself and not try to force things.

9. It’s better to miss part of the class than the whole thing.
If you can only come to a portion of the class and it’s not going to drive you crazy to get there, by all means, get your butt there. It’s your money, and if you show up, you will feel connected and it will make big difference in the following classes.

10. Ask questions when they come up. Don’t wait until everyone is gone.
I cannot tell you how common this is. After an improv class, a student will corner me or send me an e-mail and ask me “What do I need to work on?” I get it. It’s easier to ask questions one-on-one rather than in the group. But what they don’t get is they will get a far better answer if they ask those questions during the class, because they have the benefit of the entire class answering the question and not just me. Also, they are usually asking a question that would also benefit other students in the class.

Expressing Your Feelings

Improv is a personal art form, which means how you are feeling on a particular day can affect your performance. That is why I encourage my students to “speak their process,” so they can get in touch with how they are feeling.

Why is this important? Because emotions are energy, and if we are in touch with them we can play with them.

I keep re-learning this lesson, both as teacher and as a performer. At the end of the last day of my most recent Art of Slow Comedy Performance Level Class, a student pulled me aside, knowing our show was the following week and said that he was afraid and had terrible stage fright. I suggested he not be alone with it, and said the next week before the show he should tell the cast what he had just told me. That is what he did, and he ended up doing great in the show. He spoke his feelings and in the process, he freed himself up.

Now it was my turn to learn. The following night to perform in my own show, Improv Nerd, and right before the show I got into a stupid fight with my girlfriend because I was afraid to do the show that night, which I did not know at the time. I told my girlfriend I felt hurt and angry, and no matter how many times she said she was sorry, I could not let the feelings go. I did not want to do the show.

I normally start Improv Nerd each night with a monologue that’s loosely improvised. So that night, I decided to tell the audience about the stupid fight and I said I was angry and wanted to sabotage the show. I chose not to sit on it, but instead I used my emotions and played with them in the show. The show turned out to be great, even though I still felt angry. By expressing my feelings, I could have fun. And it always helps when you have a super guest and improviser like Tara DeFransico performing with you.