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When You’re the Oldest One in Your Improv Class

Improv is considered a young person’s game. Improv classes at iO and Second City are often overrun with 20-somethings just starting out in life trying to make it big in comedy someday. But what if you are over 35 and you’ve just gotten into improv? You know you are never going to audition for SNL or write for Key and Peele – it’s just not going to happen. So, often, you are filled with self-doubt and wonder why you’re wasting your time doing this at all.

If this is you, I want you to you know that you are no different than the 20-something person who is fresh out of college with stars in their eyes. Don’t kid yourself — they have the same self-doubts as you do, they difference is they can justify theirs. Youth will do that.

You, on the other hand, have a harder time doing so. You are an adult, and you tell yourself that adults are not supposed to be silly. They’re not supposed to play. Your childhood was over a long time ago. This makes it hard for you to sneak out of work early or leave the kids with a babysitter for a couple of hours so you can play. You feel guilty because you are “wasting time” with no chance of a big pay-off.

And the more fun you have, the more you start asking yourself: “Why am I doing this? Why am I spending all this time and money? Where is this going to lead me? Am I too old to get good at this?”

If these thoughts have been plaguing you, know this: These are just negative voices in your head that are trying to prevent you from having any joy. The truth is, you are having more fun than you would ever admit. YOU ARE HAVING FUN. That’s what matters. And that is worth something.

Sure, you may never become famous or be on a TV show, but who cares? You are doing what most adults only wished they could do, and that is not act like an adult for a couple of hours a week.

No, you are not going to be on SNL or write for late night talk show. Yes, that is the reality, but who gives a shit? Let those kids in the skinny jeans and untucked flannel shirts worry about being famous. That is not how you are going to measure your success. If you do, you will lose.

If you are comparing yourself to the younger people in your improv class, it will only be a matter of time before you’re going to want to quit. You’re going to start coming up with excuses like “I need to focus on my job,” or “My partner does it like it,” or my all-time favorite, “I can’t afford it.” (This is the lamest because it’s never about the money.)

No, these excuses won’t work with me. You can only quit if you are truly not having any fun doing it anymore. So don’t you dare try to twist my words or find a loop hole on this. I won’t let you get away with it.

If you are an older improviser, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to redefine what success in improv means to you, right now, while I am talking to you in this blog. Is it completing a program, starting your own group, getting a commercial or a part in a play? Decide what it is for YOU.

Have you always wanted to try improv or are you looking for a new approach? Don’t miss Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 Class, starting Sept. 18, 2019! Save $30 when you sign up by Sept. 4.

The benefits of slowing your improv down

A lot of improvisers think that the only way to be funny is to play fast. But I’ve actually found that there are a lot of benefits to slowing your improv down.

I first learned how to play slow improv from Del Close at the Improv Olympic back in the ‘80s when he was teaching us The Harold. I fell in love with that style of improv, because I saw how it helped make my improv more honest. Over the years, I’ve seen long form improv speed up over the year, but I believe there’s still room to play this way. (I think TJ and Dave are masters of it.)

So when people ask me, “What is slow comedy?” I tell them it’s about being really patient on stage. It’s about really listening and focusing on what your partner is saying, and not saying. When you do that, you are really acting, and your work becomes more honest. Plus, I’ve found it makes improvising a lot easier.

Here are the three main benefits from slowing your improv down:

  1. It Helps You Become a Better Actor
    Most improvisers think that their improv skills alone will get them work in TV and films. But what they don’t realize is that many of their improv heroes who have gone on to become famous are also very good actors. I think one of the reasons Second City actors have done so well over the years is that they not only learn how to improvise at Second City, but they also learn how to act.But guess what? You don’t always need to take an acting class to be a better actor. You can accomplish some of those same things by slowing your improv down. By not rushing to say something clever or funny, you’re giving yourself the space to feel your emotions, and also the space to sense what is going on emotionally with your scene partner. This lets you connect to your scene partner on a deeper emotional level, and you become so committed to the imaginary circumstances of your scene that you react to your partner in a natural way, like in life, which is the thing we are trying to imitate.
  2. It Makes Improv Easier
    Improvisers and actors come to improv class with a lot of baggage about what improv is supposed to be. Both actors and improvisers put pressure on themselves to be fast and funny. This is exhausting, and it doesn’t always work. For me, the goal in slow comedy is certainly to be funny, but in a different way. My philosophy is that by slowing your scenes down, you won’t have to invent something to make people laugh, but instead you’ll have a better chance of making discoveries off your partner. Everything you need for a scene is right in front of you, if you slow down and listen. Trust me, audiences want to see you have a good time. They don’t want to see you having to work so hard.
  3. It Makes Your Scenes More Honest
    Today more than ever, we need more honesty in comedy. That is the stuff that is relatable. That is the stuff that leaves an impact on an audience. That is the stuff that gets noticed (i.e. Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick or Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette.”) Audiences are craving honesty, and that is one of the reasons improv has become so popular. By slowing down your improv, it forces you on a subconscious level to tap into your life experience. If you’re worried about making a quick edit or trying to think of something funny to say, you’re in your head and aren’t really present to your own emotions, so your improv isn’t coming from your heart. When you play slow, your point of view and your personality emerges and the audience gets to know you, without you having to even try. You don’t have to worry so much about trying to be original, because you will automatically be unique just by being yourself.

 

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When Class Gets Complicated

This blog post originally had a different title, which I have changed. Please see my additional blog post where I clarify some of the points made here.

I believe in comedy we always have an opportunity to heal others. We may heal the audience, people in our group, or more importantly, ourselves.

Certainly, making people laugh is healing in itself, but sometimes the healing gets a little deeper when we do a darker scene or talk about what would be considered a taboo topic.

Because often, when we do scenes about taboo topics, people get triggered. They may have a reaction — a strong emotional reaction. Someone from our team, our class or even the audience may get upset. And this is actually a good thing.

Last week, I think it’s fair to say at least half of our country was triggered by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. I was one of them. I felt rage. I was triggered on a whole bunch of different levels, including being a survivor of sexual abuse when I was teenager by the hands of grade school teacher.

Apparently I was not alone in being triggered by this. My Facebook feed was jammed with both men and woman sharing their anger along with their experiences about sexual abuse.

As much as the outcome of the hearing was upsetting, it brought the topic of sexual abuse to the national conversation and it caused to people openly talk about it. And through that, we all healed a little bit.

In my years of therapy, I’ve realized that being triggered, as painful as it is, is actually a good thing.

I believe the same can be true in comedy, and when I have been brave enough to go to the uncomfortable places, I have found that my voice is stronger and my art is more authentic.

Today, some students think “being triggered” is a bad thing, something to avoid. So, they come to the first day of class with a list of the kind of scenes they will not do. (To be clear, I am not talking putting people in uncompromising situations or having to say “Yes, and…” to unsafe or degrading scenes.)

And when these students get triggered, they may run away. I once had a student who was a serious actor, and he could not understand why we had to be silly in improv class. Whenever we did an exercise he thought was too silly, he would roll his eyes and not participate. Being silly made him feel uncomfortable, and he didn’t like feeling uncomfortable.

So, on the second-to-last night of class, right in the middle, he got up and left, never to be seen again.

If something triggers one of my students, I try to encourage them to speak up in the moment so we can discuss it. I believe this is the best way to bring healing to the most number of people.

It always sounds like good idea, but often people don’t feel brave enough to talk about sensitive topics in class. Most of the time I get an e-mail or phone call after the class. Thank God they trust me and the process, because I encourage them to bring up what they were triggered by in the beginning of the next class so we can have an opportunity to discuss it as a group.

I am not going to say those conversations are easy, they aren’t, but they do turn out to be incredible learning experiences for everyone, especially for the teacher.

For me, more than ever, I realize that every improv class/group has different boundaries. A group of trained actors will have a different set of boundaries than a group of people taking improv for the first time. And inside each group/class, everyone has his or her own personal boundaries. Someone might not want to be touched, while others are more physical. Some people won’t use profanity, while others curse all the time. I can talk all I want at the beginning of the class about boundaries, but it’s usually when someone is triggered and is willing to discuss it that we are able to define exactly what our boundaries are for that particular group/class. If we handle it gently, this can build trust even more among the group/class.

I have experienced this first-hand many times. I had one class where we were doing an exercise and one of the students was hurt by something another student said. They did the right thing and contacted me. We had  a conversation on the phone and the student was brave enough to talk about it at the start of the next class. When the student brought it up in the next class, the other actor felt bad and apologized. The actor who was hurt took responsibility for being triggered, and I believe the class was closer from having that uncomfortable conversation.

What I learned was if the people aren’t assholes, nobody has to be wrong, and in this case, nobody was.

Another time an actor initiated a scene by saying something about the ethnicity of another actor. The actor who said it was not only kind, but also was new to improv, and it was obvious that it was not said from a place of malice. However, I was triggered and after the series of scenes were over, I opened the conversation to the class.

And what I got from the students was an open and honest conversation about that scene and their reaction to it. There was no blaming; the student who said it totally understood. I believe in that somewhat tense 10-minute discussion, we not only were finding our boundaries, but we got closer in the process. We were all learning, especially me, even if it takes getting triggered to get there.

Dealing with Taboo Topics in Improv Class

Today, many improvisers want to shy away from certain taboo topics.

As artists that is their right, and as a teacher, performer and human being, I try to respect people’s individual boundaries to not do scenes about things they don’t want to talk about.

But as a teacher, I also don’t want you to miss out opportunities to go a little deeper in your work because you are afraid of what other people might think.

I have learned everyone has different boundaries, and that is where it can get a little complicated in improv today.

Some improv teachers today tell their students that they can’t do scenes about certain subjects, such as race or sex.

But I believe it’s important to not make a blanket statement about what people can and can’t talk about in class. Instead, when it comes to taboo topics, I encourage my class to come to a mutual agreement about where their own boundaries are.

If someone gets triggered by something in class, I encourage my students to talk about it so we as a class can find our boundaries together. Occasionally I will have to speak up, too, if I something happens in a scene that makes me uncomfortable.

This happened a couple of months ago. It was clear to me the player who made the comment was not coming from a place of malice, but more from inexperience. So, after the series of scenes was done, we talked about them and had an open and honest discussion about what was said.

This was a very mature and thoughtful group, so my job in this instance was not to lay down the hammer about what you can and cannot say, but instead to let them talk and find out where their boundaries lied.

I know I learned some things, and I could tell the class did, too. By having a discussion rather than imposing a hard and fast rule, we all became more aware.

Thank God for my students, because they are they one’s that have helped me adapt to the changing world of improv. I’ve found younger students are usually more uncomfortable with taboo subjects in class than older students (and older teachers) are, so it’s important that the younger students help guide me on what is appropriate.

What’s important in class is that we not make one person right and another person wrong for what they say. If we come from a place of respect, we can all learn from each other.

Looking for a new approach to improv? (Or want to try improv for the first time?) Don’t miss Jimmy’s next Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class, starting Oct. 31! Save $30 when you sign up by Oct. 17.

Watching My Improv Students Succeed

I used to think the only satisfaction I could get from improv was when I performing it. You know, the attention that being on stage gives you. I thought I could only be happy if I was getting the laughs, the applause and the accolades.

That is how I thought for a long time.

I was a scared and selfish improviser because I was scared and selfish person. It was all about me. All the time.

I am grateful to report that today some of my happiest and proudest moments in improv aren’t coming from my own performing – they’re coming from watching my improv students succeed.

It happened last week. At the end of the Art of Slow Comedy Level 3 class, the students put on a long form performance for their friends and family. It’s nothing fancy. We just set up about 20 chairs in a classroom. We have no stage. No lights. And last week, the form was simple, a montage.

Though the space was casual, the work these students did that night was on a very high level.

I could tell it was going to be a great show almost from the moment the show started, just from the first couple of scenes. The group was confident and poised. Though they were a bit tentative, they were patient and listening, which is always a good sign. The concerns I had about their editing disappeared; it was crisp and gave their set the momentum you need in a successful long from.

Typically, when my improv students put up a show, I am more nervous than they are because as the teacher, I hold all the fear for the group. But this time, I felt really relaxed because I could tell this group was on their way to doing a great show. I could stop worrying and actually enjoy the show because they were in the flow.

You often hear in improv about the individual finding his or her voice on stage, but you very rarely hear about the group finding its voice. That night, their voice emerged as group. They started almost every scene realistically and grounded, and if it happened to go absurd, they aggressively supported the game.

And the best part was no one was giving up his or her unique voice in the process. Instead, they were blending their voices together as if they were singing different harmonies to the same song.

To say I was proud was an understatement. That night I had as much of a performance high as if I had improvised right along with them. Though the show was over by 8:15 p.m., I was so excited I couldn’t fall asleep until 1 a.m.

That night was special for me. I certainly attribute it to my age. And therapy. And my loving wife Lauren. And being a parent, because my daughter, Betsy, gets me to see wonder and joy in life though her eyes, just like I must have experienced when I was a kid. Just like my students got me to see the wonder and the joy of improv through their eyes, the same wonder and joy I must have felt when I was starting out, too.

For that, I am grateful, and it makes me feel that teaching improv is one of the most gratifying things to do in the world.

Always wanted to study with Jimmy but never had the time? Sign up for one of his three Art of Slow Comedy Summer Intensives. Only $229 if you register by June 30!

6 Reasons Actors Should Take an Improv Class

Actors are often skeptical of taking an improv class. I can’t tell you how many actors tell me “I am a serious actor. Why do I need to take an improv class?” Or they say, “I’m not funny,” “It scares me,” or “I wouldn’t be any good at it.”

Actors avoid taking improv classes for lots of different reasons, but the truth is, improv classes make people better actors. I don’t care if you don’t do comedy or you don’t think you are funny. Improv is not necessarily about being funny at all, but instead it is a methodology that can make you a better actor by making you more real, more able to react honestly in the moment and more.

So before you come up with any more excuses I haven’t even thought of, here are six things that improv classes can help you with as an actor.

  1. Be More Playful
    In my experience, the best actors bring a sense of playfulness to any role they undertake. If they’re playing a dark or disturbing role, you might call this mischief or danger, but underneath they are enjoying it. Unfortunately, too many actors think they need to be serious because they think that’s what good acting is. But remember, when we act in a PLAY, we’re supposed to it PLAY in the imaginary circumstance. Play means to have fun. When I was little kid we played SWAT. We took it seriously and didn’t break out of our police characters, but underneath we were having fun capturing the bad guys. Though I have comedy background, I have been cast in TV and film parts that would be considered “serious acting” roles. And I landed those roles even though I was playing a jerk or a scared prison guard because deep down I was enjoying playing that part. I learned that all in improv.
  1. Take Direction
    When I go into an audition I have prepared at home in front of the mirror a certain way. But what happens if the casting people want to see it another way? Some actors freeze and end up blowing the audition. If only they had a little improv under their belt so they could be more adaptable. I once landed a role on ER as Manny the used car salesman because I asked a question in the casting session which led me do it the opposite way that everyone else had just done it, and guess what? I got the part. Thanks to improv, I could adjust do things differently.
  1. Be in the Moment
    I love watching great acting because even though the actors are saying someone else’s words, they are reacting as if they have never heard those words before. It’s as if they are improvising with a script. Improv teaches you how to be in the moment so your emotional reactions can feel truly authentic and genuine.
  1. Take Risks
    Great actors take risks. They surprise you with their choices. They are constantly taking risks at the audition, in rehearsal and during the run of the show. To get there you have to give yourself permission to constantly experiment. In improv, you’re forced to take risks and put yourself out there without a safety net, and one of the most important improv philosophies is that there are no mistakes, which encourages people to take risks in supportive environment. By practicing taking risks in improv, you’ll be able to take bigger risks in your acting as well.
  1. Be More Confident
    Whenever an actor takes one of my improv classes or workshops, I’m always amazed at how much their confidence level improves. After two weeks, I’ll have actors come into class and say, “I am auditioning better, I’m having more fun, and I have a new-found confidence.”
  1. Be More Believable
    What actor does not want to be more believable? But sometimes when we get a script in our hands, we become more concerned with the words on the page than with relating to our scene partners. The dialogue that comes out of our mouth seems lifeless and flat, like we’re robots who don’t know how to relate to people. Taking improv classes helps actors become more fluid with their own words, which eventually helps you become more at ease with others’ words, too. Once you’ve overcome the fear of creating your own dialogue in improv, reciting from a script will seem easy.

Are you an actor interested in trying your hand at improv? Don’t miss Jimmy’s next Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class, starting Feb. 22 at Green Shirt Studio. The Early Bird special ends Feb. 8! 

Why it’s good to have a small improv class

When I first started out teaching improv a million years ago at The Second City Training Center in Chicago, we would occasionally have small classes. Sometimes only five or six people would show up for a Saturday afternoon improv class.

I would get really frustrated when that would happen, and I would find Michael Gellman in the hall, hoping he would join me in my misery, and say something, like “Shit, I only had four people in class today.” Instead, in his deep voice, he would say, “That’s great; those are the best classes.”

Michael said a lot of wise things to me in those days that I did not understand until later in life and this was one of them.

Last Wednesday night, I was on my way to teach my Art of Slow Comedy Level 3 improv class during a huge thunder storm. It was pouring, the kind of rain that floods the street and forces the traffic to stop. A distance that normally takes you a couple minutes to drive now was taking an hour, and anytime we get any sort of moisture in the air in Chicago people for some reason have to drive super slow. When I got to class, my pants were soaked from sprinting one block in the rain from where I had parked. When I got into the classroom, I was surprised that three dedicated improvisers had made it through the storm and were eager to play.

When I first started out teaching, I had an arbitrary number in my head that I needed six people to teach an improv class or I would cancel it. That’s when I lacked confidence and experience. When you teach for yourself, and you don’t have the policy of the institution behind you; you have to carry on. So that’s what I did. I didn’t wait for more people to show up. That wouldn’t be fair to the people who are already there, and I knew on a night like this, three might be all we’d get.

So, I started class with three improvisers, and I decided to have them start doing three-person scenes. About half an hour into class, another student showed up. She said it took her three hours to get there because of the rain — talk about dedication.

Whenever I have a small class, there is always part of me that thinks the students are going to be disappointed that there are only four people in class, and I have fear that they’re going to hold it against me. I usually feel shame and think if my class is small, it must mean I’m a failure.

I could not be more wrong. I got an e-mail from one of my students who loved the smaller improv class because of the individual attention. The woman who had traveled three hours posted something on Facebook about how much she learned that night. And me, I finally understood exactly what Michael Gellman had told me over 20 years ago: A small class is actually a great class.

What to Expect in Your First Improv Class

So you’re thinking about signing up for your very first improv class. Maybe people have told you that you’re funny, or that you should take an improv class just because it’s fun. But what is an improv class really like?

Before you panic or try to get out of it before even showing up, I thought I would put together some things about what you can expect to experience at your first improv class.

  1. You will plays games, do exercises and maybe even scenes
    Unlike stand-up, most of what you do in an improv class is in a group. If you get a good teacher, most of the learning will be done by doing games, exercises and scene work. The good news is that for most of the games and exercises, you will be doing it with the group or part of the group. It is very rare you have to do something alone. If you do scene work, it most likely be with other people, at the very minimum one other person, so there is safety in numbers.
  2. You will have fun
    Yes, you maybe sacred shitless and feel as uncomfortable as hell, but you are going to have fun.  Lots and lost of fun. Because improv is all about having fun. In fact, sometimes you’ll be having so much fun that you’ll forget you’re learning something. Trust me, this is normal. It’s all good, my friend, all good.
  3. You will be asked to be silly
    No way around this one. You cannot avoid acting silly or goofy in an improv class. It’s impossible, especially if you want to get anything out of it. In most improv classes, they are trying to try to break down years of social conditioning that tells you it’s not ok to act silly and goofy and free. In your head, you may feel like an idiot playing games where you make funny sounds or bounce up and down like a piece of popcorn. But if you feel like an idiot, you are on the right track.
  1. You don’t have to be funny
    I think a lot of people who are taking their first improv class think they have to be funny or mistake it for stand-up comedy. I am here to tell you, you don’t have to do any of that stuff. You are there to play and collaborate with the other students in class. That is it. If you let go of being funny from the start, you will take the pressure off yourself and have a much better time. As you continue to take classes you will have plenty of time to focus on the funny, but for God’s sake, not in the first class you take.
  2. You are going to be afraid
    Know that you’re going to feel afraid, and this is good thing. Most likely, you’ll be way outside of your comfort zone, and believe it or not, others are just as scared as you are, and though they may not look like it, trust me, they are. Sometimes the fear goes away and sometimes it lasts the entire length of the class. Don’t use this as an excuse to quit or think that there is something wrong with you. Fear is good. It means you’re trying something new!
  3. It won’t make sense
    I see improv students in their first improv class trying to figure out what we are supposed to be learning from each exercise or game by asking a question. Improv will not make any sense when you first start out, so don’t try to make sense out of it. Please, I am serious. People ask these questions because they are afraid and they want to control the outcome, which in my experience kills all the fun.
  1. You don’t have to want to do this for a living
    That is right, you don’t have to want to be on SNL or write for the Daily Show to take an improv class. Other people in the class may be interested in that, but don’t let other people’s aspirations scare you off. I especially hear this from people who are taking their first improv class later in life. They ask themselves, “What am I doing this for if it’s not going to lead to anything?” They feel foolish, like it’s a waste of time. I am here to tell you learning how to be more silly, spontaneous and outgoing is a great skill to learn at any age in life.
  2. You are going to fail a lot
    If you’re reading this thinking, “That sucks. How can I avoid that?” Know that you can’t. Failing is where all the best learning comes. So plan to fail, plan to screw things up, many many times, in fact, if you want to get the most out of an improv class. The best way to say this is embrace failing.
  3. You’re going to want to compare yourself to others
    Watch this one, this kills more first time improv students then is ever reported. Remember, everyone learns at a different rate. Some people may be coming with an acting or stand-up back ground. Other may have done improv in high school. So don’t get in the habit of comparing yourself to others. The only one you need to compare yourself to is you. Are you making progress? Are you having fun? If so, you’re golden.
  4. You will make friends
    As long as you’re not a jerk or a creep, you have a great opportunity to make a slew of new friends in an improv class, especially because unlike taking a lecture class, improv is an art form where you have to work together and experience it by doing. Warning: Sometimes the people you meet in improv classes can become friends you’ll have for life.

Hurry! Hurry! There’s still time to sign up for Jimmy’s Intro to the Art of Slow Comedy Workshop on July 14, 2019! Register by Sunday to save $20!

 

6 Ways to Be the Most Annoying Person in Your Improv Class

If you’ve been taking improv classes for a while, you know that most improvisers are really warm, nice and funny people. But every once in a while, you get someone in your class you just can’t stand. Trust me, you don’t want to be that person. Luckily, I’ve done a lot of thinking about what makes someone an improv pariah. Here are the top six things that will make you the most annoying person in your improv class:

  1. Don’t Bathe
    If you want to be the one person who no one wants to do a scene with, make sure to ignore your personal hygiene. Nothing will separate you from the rest of your class more than funky body odor. Literally. The class will just sit farther and farther away from you until you are are alone on the other side of the room. And what will really piss your class off besides the smell — and that they can’t get within three feet of you without wanting to throw up — is that they can’t say anything about this to your face.
  2. Talk About Yourself Constantly
    This is definitely a sure-fire way to be among the most annoying people in your improv class. If you want to do it right, before people in your class even say hi to you, go right into what you are up to, and never give them a chance to interrupt. Tell them the about the YouTube video you and your friend, Sean, just made, the movement class you just signed up for, and the non-union industrial audition you have next week. Be self-important and ignore any signs that they are bored or are trying to get out of the conversation, because you don’t care. And make sure to never ask them what they are up to.
  3. Sleep Around
    If you are looking to get a reputation, this is not the kind of reputation you want. And believe me word spreads fast. You want to be known for what you do on stage, not in bed. If you are a guy reading this going “this only applies to woman,” chances are you are already doing it, so cut it out right now.
  4. Show up Drunk or High
    Being labeled dangerous in comedy is usually a good thing, except in this case, where you actually a physical danger to the other people in your improv class. If you are already doing this and you think you are getting away with it, you aren’t. No one wants to do a scene with someone who is too drunk to remember what name you gave their character or too stoned to get a callback reference. Students will secretly talk to the teacher after class and let them know that they smell liquor on your breath.
  1. Name Drop
    You’ve got to love this one for the annoyance factor. Every opportunity you get in class, drop the names of improv teachers or established improvisers you “know,” referring to them by first name so it makes sound like you are “really good friends.” Think you’re impressing everyone? Eh, not so much. By the third week everybody will want to kill you.
  1. Be aloof
    Another great way to alienate yourself from your improv class is to be the person who is too cool to do improv. Roll your eyes during the warm games and mutter “This is stupid” under your breath. That will establish you as a dick. Make it clear you don’t want to be there and that you are obviously above all of this. This will give you classmates plenty to talk about at the bar after class, where they will ask each other the same question: Why is this asshole even taking an improv class?

Summer is here! Get in awesome improv shape with Jimmy Carrane’s Art of Slow Comedy 2015 Summer Intensives on July 11-12 and July 25-26. Spots going fast! Register today.

Using your negative energy

I love my Monday night Art of Slow Comedy improv class and I am going to miss them. They have taught me so much and last night was no exception.

In this level, we typically warm up with a series of two-person scenes. This week, after they finished, I asked the class, “How did you feel about what you just did?”

One of my students came unhinged and got emotional, to the point of tears. “I am frustrated. I’m not getting it!” she said. “I’m not good at improv. I don’t feel safe in this class, and I don’t want to expose people to my negative energy.”

She was trembling, raw and vulnerable, and was worried that her negative energy was contagious and everyone else was going to catch it. The class was silent and we all just listened. When she was finished, I didn’t try to talk her out of her experience or make it all go away. Instead, I said, “OK, I want you to use that frustration, that the negative energy, in every scene.”

So she did six scenes in row with different people, using her frustration and that  “negative energy” she wanted so desperately to hide from her classmates. Holy shit, what scenes they all came up with! She was a live wire, an open wound, and each student reacted to her differently — some compassionately, some sarcastically, but all vulnerably and really real.

It was one of those nights when the students collectively reached a higher level together, and the students were saying and doing things I never thought possible. It was as if their hearts had been opened up to her and she did the same.

Afterwards, people talked about how free they felt and how easy it was to improvise. When I asked them what they had learned that night, one student piped up and said: “We can use what we got. I need to remember that.”

And so do I. They had re-taught me a lesson I had forgotten, a lesson I use in my own work. Whatever feeling you are having — whether you’re scared or frustrated or sad or tentative — use it in your scene work and let it embody your character.

I first learned this lesson back in 1992 when I was in the original cast of Armando at IO-Chicago. Let me tell you, I was scared to death to be part of that show. I was intimated by the A-list improvisers who were part of that show. I am not kidding you, the first six months I must have played someone who was scared in every scene because that was what my natural state was. Instead of trying to fight my feelings, I just embraced them, and it really worked.

Often times, improvisers will try to override their so-called “negative” emotions of fear, sadness, and anger with that bullshit, pumped-up, fake improviser energy. More skilled improvisers learn how to just accept their negative energy and use it.

What was so cool about Monday night’s class was that it wasn’t just one student who had a breakthrough, the entire class had one. And it all started with one brave student being willing to take a risk and be honest and messy about her “negative energy.”

She was right about one thing. It was contagious and we all caught it, thank god, including the teacher.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? The next Art of Slow Comedy class begins soon! Fundamentals starts Feb. 24 and Advanced starts Feb. 22.

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