How Improv Helps People with Down Syndrome

A few weeks ago, I got an email from Rob Snow, the Executive Director of Stand Up For Downs, a non-profit organization based in Cleveland, OH, that is dedicated to helping people with Down syndrome.

Rob is a native Ohioan who studied at Second City, iO and The Annoyance in Chicago in the ‘90s before turning to Ohio where he got a “real job, real wife, and started a real family.” After having his second son, Henry, who was born with Down syndrome, in 2009, Rob became passionate about helping people with special needs live full and fulfilling lives.

Last year, Stand Up For Downs began offering monthly improv classes to anyone with Down syndrome over the age of 15, and now they also have a nine-person improv group called the Improvaneers that rehearses once a week and performs shows for their parents after each nine-week session.

Now, Stand Up For Downs is planning on offering training to other instructors on how to teach improv to people with Down syndrome and other special needs, so these kinds of improv classes can be offered nationwide.

I was so impressed with this initiative that I asked Rob to tell me a little bit more about his program and what his hopes are for it. Here’s what he had to say:

  1. How did you first come up with the idea for doing this?
    Our non-profit, Stand Up For Downs, has been around since 2013 with the mission of enhancing the lives of those with Down syndrome through humor. For the first five years, that meant producing comedy events that raised over $450,000 for various organizations within the Down syndrome community.In early 2018, I was talking with a friend who had done improvisation in the past. She had two girls under age four and three more girls on the way (triplets!). I asked what she would want to do if she wasn’t somewhat preoccupied for the foreseeable future. She said it was always her dream to teach improvisation to those with special needs. I asked why that was, and she said, “Imagine the possibilities!” It was like a lightning bolt had hit me. I got permission to steal her idea and the wheels began to turn immediately.

    I knew from studying improvisation at Second City, iO, and The Annoyance Theatre in the late 90s in Chicago that improvisation teaches so many valuable skills, like problem-solving, quick-thinking, teamwork, listening, building self-confidence, and communication skills like voice projection and eye contact. If these skills could be taught to those with Down syndrome, their workplace and social opportunities could expand greatly.

    So we began teaching monthly classes to anyone with Down syndrome in the Cleveland area over the age of 15. We saw such incremental results after only a few classes, so I thought, “What if we auditioned an advanced group and taught them weekly? What type of improvements would we see then?” So The Improvaneers were born in April 2018 after auditioning more than 25 individuals and casting nine to be in the world’s first all-Down syndrome improvisation troupe.

  2. How has improv helped the people who are involved?
    In the beginning of the program, I would use phrases like “ground-breaking” and “game-changing” to hype the program. After a year, I would say those are understatements. Our cast members have gone from looking down at the floor when speaking to looking people directly in their eyes. They have raised their voices to more audible levels. One of our cast, Nick Doyle, has seen his confidence grow so much he quit his job at a grocery chain he had held for 11 years, because he felt the job wasn’t challenging him enough and, in his words, “he deserved a better seat at the table.” He has since joined two non-profit boards, and a job is being created for him as “Chief Morale Officer” that will allow him to work in the office and be a part of marketing and sales calls with customers. Another cast member, Theresa Buzzelli, has had articulation issues that made it difficult to understand her. She started a job at Chick-Fil-a shortly after joining the cast. She worked in the back doing kitchen and dish duties in the beginning. Since being a part of The Improvaneers she has slowed down her speech and improved her diction. She now works up front greeting customers, refilling drinks and bussing tables. Her employees and several customers threw her a one-year anniversary party about a month ago. Each of the cast members has had similar experiences, and we are conducting case studies on each to prove the value of this program.
  3. What are your hopes for the program moving forward?
    We are now in the process of creating the actual program. The cast this past year has served as our “testing ground” on how this program can work. Now, my lead trainer, Maggie Bisesi, and I are creating the curriculum for three levels of the program – Introductory (Level 1), Improvaneer (Level 2), Performance (Level 3). We will also create a trainer certification that we will use to train any location directors in areas where we provide the program but can’t be there in person to do the training. Additionally, the program will include web training, monthly oversight and evaluation, and hopefully, an annual festival for all teams to perform.This program will be marketed to the Down syndrome community initially, then we hope to adapt it to all special needs.

    Ultimately, the hope is that as many individuals with special needs can benefit from the skills taught through improvisation and we can blow open the doors on social and workplace opportunities. This will also begin to change perceptions of those with special needs in a major way around the world so that they can get the respect they deserve.

  4. As a teacher how to do you approach improv differently with people who have Down syndrome?
    The unique part was how best to build the foundations of improvisation. What I’ve learned about Down syndrome raising our son Henry for 10 years is that they can accomplish so much more than we realize and nearly as much as a typical individual. It just takes more time, so repetition is a big factor as well as a bit more patience. Building the improvisation foundations was key to this program and figuring out which games/structures to use was critical. We referred to this as scaffolding, so we could start new layers once we had the strong layers below it.Another aspect you have with many individuals with Down syndrome is that they often have a love of performing. So, harnessing that love and finding the best way to show it was always a fun challenge and opportunity.

    Emotion is something to be very careful with. They can wear their heart on their sleeves in more prominent ways then most typical performers. Improvising a sad scene can trigger emotion very easily. They also feed off one another, so if one person is upset the other has sympathy pains for them and often then goes into their own sadness. It can be a domino effect.

    We were very careful to note those differences and they will play a prominent role in the manual on this program so those instructors we certify to teach a program have a playbook to handle these unique aspects.

  5. What is the most rewarding thing you have experienced since starting?
    The reaction from audiences who’ve seen them perform or heard one of my sessions about the program has been incredible and overwhelming. Once the audience sees them or hears the details and outcomes of the program, they quickly ask me when they can get this in their town.But the most rewarding personally has been seeing the growth! Watching someone unsure of themselves at first, walking out in front of an audience with their head held high unafraid to be 100% themselves. Hearing from their family and friends the way they have improved their social interactions and grown in the workplace is incredible. They are dreaming bigger now than they ever thought possible and all aspects of their lives are opening up to them more than they ever imagined.

Interested in trying improv for the first time, or want to learn a new approach? Check out Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class starting Sept. 18. Save $30 when you sign up by Sept. 4!



5 Things to Avoid in Your Improv Classes

Art of Slow Comedy

I’ve been teaching improv classes for a long time, and over the years, I’ve seen students do the same things over and over again that get in their way. Here are the top 5 things that improvisers should avoid doing in class and suggestions about how you can do it differently.

1. Don’t apologize after a scene or when you’re given a note
A lot of times, when people finish a scene in improv class or get a note from the teacher, they say “sorry.” You don’t need to say this. I should know — I was one of those people who said sorry all the time after a scene or an exercise. I was apologizing for not being perfect. I was apologizing for wasting your time. I was apologizing for existing.

“Sorry” means you did something wrong. I am here to tell you, you did nothing wrong. You are improvising – and that means it’s impossible to make a mistake. I understand you think you made a mistake, but you didn’t. So give yourself a break and stop apologizing for learning.

Suggestion: Next time, substitute the word “thank you” or “oh” for “sorry” and see if you feel differently.

2. Don’t be defensive
This is a hard thing to address because if you’re defensive and you’re reading this, you probably don’t think this applies to you. Boy, do I wish I had a way to get through to you. I have taken improv classes with defensive people, I have taught improv classes with defensive people, and these people would rather be right than learn. Every note from the teacher to the student becomes some sort of justification why the student did this or that. If you find yourself justifying why you did something, rather than just taking the note, you are being defensive. And when you’re defensive, you’re not learning, you’re just surviving.

Suggestion: If you have an inkling that you might be defensive, get help for it outside of class, because you are wasting your time and money taking improv classes, or, to be honest, any kind of classes.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarity when you get a note you don’t understand
I have a friend who’s taking improv classes and he called me up for some advice. He was getting the same note over and over again from different teachers, and he didn’t really understand what they meant. I asked him if he got clarity on the note. “No, I don’t want to be one of those students who takes up all the time during improv classes.” Here’s the thing: If you don’t understand a note, this is the time to be one of those students because it gives the teacher the opportunity to share their experience with you, or better yet, come up with an exercise that can help you. As a teacher, I love these opportunities. It’s exciting, because now the class and the teacher are improvising together, and the chance that we will learn from each other is pretty good.

Suggestion: If you don’t understand a note, ask questions. Be ok with taking up time in your improv classes. It will only help you get more comfortable taking up stage time.

4. Don’t be polite
Most students are super polite and hold back in improv classes, especially in exercises that are quick and designed for the players to go multiply times such as 30-second scene, three-line scenes, etc. These games are designed for you to learn through repetition, and by jumping in as much as you can, you help the group as whole. Don’t be polite and let other people take all the turns. Trust that if you are getting out there too much, the teacher will reign you in. There is old actor/director tip: It’s easier to tell an actor to bring it down if he’s playing it too big than to have an actor who is playing it too small and have him play it bigger.

Suggestion: Keep pushing yourself out there!

5. Don’t hold back, even if you’re feeling insecure
If you feel off or you’re having one of those days where you don’t have any confidence, make sure you don’t hide out in class. Instead, be the first one up. Ryan Archibald once gave me the best piece to advice. I was doing a long-form show at Second City called Summer Rental, and I showed up backstage before the show and told some of the cast members that I felt off. Ryan said: “Make sure you are in the first scene.” Man, he was right. I did a scene with Joe Canale and we nailed it. I think being scared helped me do some of my best work.

Suggestion: Your mind will want to tell you to hide out. Do the opposite and get out there.

Want to take your scene work to the next level? Sign up for Jimmy’s Two-Person Scene Tune-Up on April 14!

Why We Have to Keep Learning

Let me tell you something that drives me nuts. A person does improv for five or six years and starts getting good at, gets on Harold team, maybe two, and he is killing it.

Naturally, he wants more from his the career, which means he would like to get paid. So he saves up enough money to get headshots. Then he gets agent who sends him on a ton of auditions and he sucks at them. He sucks at reading from a script, he sucks at auditioning.

Then one of his smart-ass friends suggests taking an on-camera class and the improviser balks: “I am on a house team at one of the biggest improv theaters in country. I don’t need to take another class.”

He doesn’t know it, but he has just put his film, TV and commercial career on hold. Out of arrogance. Out of pride.

What this really talented improviser doesn’t realize is that cold reading and auditioning is a skill, something that needs to be learned, like improv. By stopping learning, he is killing any chance of taking his career to the next level.

I cannot tell you how many people I have known, including myself, who used to think like this.

This happens in the acting world as well. I have seen accomplished actors come out of the audition room with flop sweat and all the color gone from their face complaining, “Man, that was rough. They asked me to improvise.” Yet, they never take an improv class. Why?

Just like many improvisers, actors often don’t realize that even if they’ve worked in some of the best theaters in town, the credits don’t transfer. Just because you have mastered one medium does not mean that you will automatically master another one. Most likely, it will take less time to learn a new skill because of your prior experience, but it will not happen overnight. Remember you’re learning something related but essentially you are learning something new, and that takes time. Just remember how long it took you to grasp acting or improv.

Several years ago I was in an on-camera class with one of my favorite all-time teachers, Jane Alderman. We had an actor in our class who was in the touring company of Wicked when it was playing for a long run in Chicago. The guy had a big part in it and he was taking an on-camera class on his off night. I knew this guy must be from NY or LA because Chicago actors and improvisers don’t think like that. Even though he was in big touring company of Broadway show, he knew that if he wanted to go into TV and film he had to learn some new skills. He wasn’t arrogant enough to think that his part in Wicked would be enough. He was one of the smart ones.

I have friend out in LA who has been quite successful in commercials, TV and film, and you know what? He is always studying and taking classes and working with an on-camera coach when he gets a big audition. Sometimes when he takes a class he will say, “Do you remember so-and-so who was on that network show for six seasons? That guy is in my scene study class.” I love hearing that because I think most of us think once you are on a national TV show you are done learning.

As actors and improvisers, the only thing we have control over is our ability to keep developing our talents, to keep learning new things. The best way I know how to do that is by taking classes. I not only find it fun, but it’s also a great way to meet people and even network.

I try to take this advice myself. Even though I’m a big-time improv teacher with more than 30 years improvising experience, last year I took a stand-up comedy class. I was by far the oldest person in the class by 20 years. Nobody knew my reputation as an improv teacher. I had a ball. And let me tell you, it had a direct impact on my improvising and my teaching. I can’t tell how it did, it just did.

As you read this, my wish for you is to always be learning something new.

Want to keep learning? Take Jimmy Carrane Art of Slow Comedy Summer Intensive! Either July 30-31 or Aug. 6-7. Sign up today!

Why I Became an Improv Teacher

As improv has gotten bigger over the years, more and more people have become improv teachers. What once was just a hobby for a handful of people has become an actual profession for hundreds of people around the country.

So this week, I started thinking… what made me become an improv teacher in the first place? And why do I keep doing it after all of these years?

To help me, I asked Jay Sukow, a former improv teacher at Second City who has recently started teaching his own improv classes in Los Angeles, to give me his thoughts on why he loves teaching improv, as well.

If you’re considering becoming an improv teacher, we hope our answers inspire you to take the leap!


Jay Sukow, improv teacher, Los Angeles

The reason I decided to become an improv teacher was two-fold. One reason was Dead Poet’s Society. It tells the story of John Keating, an English teacher who inspires his students through his teaching of poetry. From the first day of class, he tries to get his students to look at life differently. He inspires them. He tells them to rip out pages of their poetry books. He encourages his students to “make your lives extraordinary.” He introduces them to the Latin phrase carpe diem (seize the day). The ending of the film made me cry as the students salute Keating by standing on their desk and calling out “O Captain! My Captain.” I get chills just writing this. He inspired his students. Much like my teachers inspired me.

And it’s not just my teachers who inspired me, it’s also my students who continue to inspire me. When someone’s eyes light up with “I get it!” When someone says to me, “You changed my life.” When the career corporate person quits their job and becomes brave enough to pursue their artistic passion. When the grandmother says, “I play better with my grandchildren because I now say ‘Yes, and…!’” When the performer who’s fallen out of love with improv experiences that thing that reignites their passion and comes back reenergized. When people make lifelong friends, find a soul mate, are just happier in life. When a student becomes a teacher and evangelist and our relationship has evolved into becoming good friends. When students change their lives by starting improv companies, especially ones that give back to charities and communities. When a student who is too scared to open up and be vulnerable, who hides behind cracking jokes, being sarcastic and defensive, changes their actions and opens up to the possibility of what can happen. When the executive vice president of a Fortune 100 global fast food company tells you he uses the improv exercise “Red Ball” to start his weekly meetings. When I’ve affected someone’s life.

Another reason I got into teaching was that I wanted everyone to experience the joy, the magic, the love of improv. To see what we could do instead of feeling the pressure of what I was going to do. To show off your intelligence without fear of being made fun of. In improv, I found my tribe. I felt a part of something bigger than myself. Improv kept my ego in check since I had to leave it at the door. Improv allowed me to play and have fun. Improv has had such a big impact of my life and I wanted to share that with everyone I met. I learned that to hold onto something, to really benefit from it, you have to give it away. Improv is one of the few places where we focus on similarities, not differences. I’ve taught classes made up of such disparate people: 19 year old college students, Vietnam veterans, retired grandparents, career advertising professionals, suburban mothers and husbands, recently divorced. All in one class. And that’s the norm, not the exception. It’s always the case that people who would never had met any other way, who don’t run in similar social circles, get to know each other in a supportive, low-stress environment. Because “Yes, and…!” really means “No judgement” of others, but more importantly, of each other. Make each other look like rock stars. Inspire each other to be great.

Along the way, I’ve learned so much. Benefitted so much. Made lifelong friends. Gotten married and had two wonderful children and a dog. All because of the power of “Yes, and!”

I teach now also because I see a lot of negativity in scenes, a lot of conflict, yelling and anger. A lot of individuality. A lot of desperation to be funny instantly, with every spoken line. A lot of making others the butt of the joke, picking on scene partners, saying “No” to most offerings, even as simple as, “Would you like something to drink?” I want to see that change. To see people play not for laughs. I want people to see every opportunity as a wonderful possibility, to see every mistake as a gift, to help everyone feel the magic I feel. I want people to embrace the unknown, to follow the fear, to create, not destroy.

My classes come with lifetime tech support. (Thank you Dean Evans for that line.) Never forget I got your back. And your front. And all of the wonderful you. Those are the main reasons why I decided to become an improv teacher and coach.


Jimmy Carrane, improv teacher, Chicago

I originally started teaching improv and coaching around 1992, and to be totally honest, I did if for the money. Back then, the only people getting paid in improv were the piano players and the teachers/coaches, so naturally, I wanted in on that.

I first looked at teaching like a temp job. I was just doing it to pay the bills until I got my big break (which, as you know, hasn’t happened yet — I am still waiting). At the time, you could make up to $35 for three hours of work coaching a Harold team in someone’s tiny apartment in Wrigleyville, and that was some good extra side money for me while I worked a day job selling office supplies.

I continued to teach on the side for a long time, always hoping that someday I could ditch my day job and focus on improv and acting full time. Then one day, around 2002, I was working at a commercial real estate office and teaching a couple of classes at Second City, and I came up with the idea of teaching my own classes. So, I put up some flyers for my first class, took out an ad for it, and the class filled up quickly. I could not believe it. Of course, I took that as a sign that teaching improv was something I was meant to do, at least for now, and I took the leap to make it my full-time job.

My relationship with teaching improvisation has completely changed over the years, as has my approach to it. Today, I teach improv because I love the process more than anything. I love taking a group of strangers and having them give themselves over to something that is bigger than all of us. By doing this, they start finding their comedic voice and taping into their honest life experience, and improv becomes effortless for them. They begin to trust — the class, the teacher and themselves.

They start feeling like they belong and with that comes a new freedom and new confidence. And regardless of how funny they maybe at this point, they are becoming stage worthy. We start to believe every word that comes out of their mouths and they become better actors without even knowing it. They are entertaining me, and I am a tough audience.

Yes, it seems kind of magical when I put it that way, and it’s hard to believe it really works. Students often can’t believe it either. They’ll come up to me after a class or a workshop and say, “Is it supposed to be that fun and easy?” They seem puzzled by the whole experience. “Yes, yes!” I say. “It is supposed to be this fun and easy.” This is what I am after. This is why I am still teaching for God’s sake!

I also love collaborating with other people, and my students are no exception. When I teach, I don’t come in thinking I know all the answers. Instead, I like to improvise along with the class. For the most part, I don’t plan what I am going to teach. I wait for the class to present what they need to learn that day. It’s exciting to work this way because it forces me to be in the moment with them, much like when you are improvising in front of an audience. I am in the zone, I am listening and responding. Don’t tell anyone, but my students are actually inspiring me.

But the thing I love the most about teaching is creating intimacy with a group of strangers, and out of that comes a sense of community and connection among my students. I will say this: Nothing makes me more proud than when students or improvisers I have taught and directed remain friends after the class or show is over. You wouldn’t believe how happy I feel when I talk to a former student who says something like, “Oh, you know Jerry, Julia and I are still good friends from your class ten years ago.” That is almost as good as when someone says, “You are my favorite improv teacher,” or “I learned the most in your class” or “You are best improviser teacher I have ever had.”

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? There are still a few spots available in his Art of Slow Comedy Level 3 improv class, starting Jan. 6. Sign up today!

Why improvisers should take acting classes

Improvisers and actors usually classify themselves either as one or the other. But you know what? I wish improvisers would realize they are really actors and actors to realize that learning how to improvise is a necessary part of acting.

Over the years, I’ve found that actors are afraid to improvise, convincing themselves they can’t work without a script. They will they get an audition where they will be asked to improvise and they will freeze up and leave dejected and won’t come close to getting cast.

On the flip side, often when improvisers have a script in their hands, they don’t have a clue what they are doing. They think that they’re such great improvisers, they don’t need to learn how to act. Both the actor and the improviser are missing opportunities.

Both the actor and improviser can learn from each other, and the easiest way to do that is for the improviser to take an acting class and the actor to take an improv class.

To help me explain why this is important, I asked Andrew Gallant, who teaches Meisner acting classes at Green Shirt Studio in Chicago, to give me his thoughts on the subject.

Why Improvisers Should Take Acting Classes
— Jimmy Carrane

1. It helps you get good with a script
Guess what improvisers? If you want to do commercials, TV and films — the things that actually pay you money and may bring some exposure to your career — then you are going to have to audition to get them. Which means you are going to have be good with a script. This translates to knowing how to ACT!

Improvisers have had the reputation for years that when they get in casting session and are asked to read off the script they usually suck. The reason they do is they usually have no formal ACTING experience or training. Remember, the last time I checked, there was no one getting rich off of just doing improv.

  1. It helps you develop your serious side
    Improvisers for the most part want to be liked and make people laugh. They are terrified to go to the places where actors love to go to naturally. Acting classes are a great place to force improvisers out of their comfort zone and re-wire their brains to give them the confidence to go dramatic and let go of needing to get a laugh. Not only is this going to make them a much better improviser, it’s also going to give them so much more range as an actor. In my career, 80 percent of my TV and film credits have come from dramas, not comedies.
  1. You are both an actor and improviser
    Yes, you call yourself an improviser but you are also an actor, so you as an actor, you should know the basic terminology of acting and know that your work ethic as improviser is not going to cut in theater, movies and television. Acting takes discipline. Actors prepare their asses off. Even if you are doing a scene in class you, will have to memorize the script, emotionally prepare for the scene and meet with your partner outside of class to rehearse. This takes hours and hours of work and commitment. Since improvisers can be extremely lazy and a little flaky, taking an acting class can be a rude, but necessary awakening if they want more from their career and themselves.

Why Actors Should Take Improv Classes
— Andrew Gallant, co-founder of Green Shirt Studio

  1. You will be asked to improvise whether you are a trained improviser or not
    Guess what actors: You will be asked to improvise in your career as an actor. No matter how much you think of yourself as “not an improviser,” you will be asked to do it in auditions and on film sets. You will be asked to improvise in rehearsals. Commercials are FULL of improvisers. It will happen at some point in your career, no matter how afraid of improv you are. You will be asked to improvise. It is simply a skill that you need to develop if you want to be ready in the room.
  1. It reminds you how to play
    There is a reason that you play a lot of games in improv classes: They reconnect you to the part of yourself that is impulsive, playful and willing to take risks. Games teach you to BE GAME. To be up for anything, ready to go, eager to jump into the unknown just for the fun of it. It’s so easy when actors are working on deeply dramatic texts to forget that there is joy and fun even in the hardest of work. Improv teaches us to relish play and open ourselves up to the joy of working with other people to make something in the moment we are sharing together.
  1. You learn to invest in the world outside yourself
    One of my favorite lessons from improv is to “treat your partner like a rock star.” Improv, like the Meisner approach to acting, lays in the fundamental ethic that your partner gives you everything you need in the moment. Trusting your partner can be difficult, especially when you think you have a great idea of how things could go. Improv reinforces the truth that our clever ideas are never as interesting as what’s happening with the people around us. That kind of trust makes you a good performer, a good collaborator and a good person.

Are you an actor or an improviser looking to improve? Take Jimmy Carrane’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 3 class, which features a live performance, starting Jan. 6! Sign up by Dec. 26 to get the Early Bird pricing.

3 Exercises to Help You Start Your Scenes in the Middle

How many times have you started a scene by saying, “How are you doing?” or “What are you up to?” If you’ve done that, you know that the scene goes absolutely nowhere. If you have a good teacher, director, or coach, he or she will usually say, “You need to start your scenes in the middle.” You may look at them glassy-eyed, not quite understanding the concept or how it applies to your improv. This is very common. Don’t panic.

The goal of starting your scenes in the middle is to get into the action that happens after the formalities of “Hi, what’s up?” and begin with a strong statement that addresses what’s going on in the relationship. More along the lines of: “I can’t believe you just asked me out at work.” Or: “Your mother found this pot in your bedroom.”

I can tell you that I’ve been saying, “You need to start your scenes in the middle” for so many years that I’m forgetting what it means myself. So I’m writing this blog for the both of us.

Lately, I’ve seen students in my Art of Slow Comedy improv classes struggle with this issue, and instead of trying to explain this piece of improv theory (which only leads to more confusion), I have found it much more helpful to give them an exercise to practice it. So, I will do the same for you and give you three exercises that’ll help you start your scenes in the middle. I’ve found these exercises to be very simple and effective, and players have a lot of fun doing them.

1. Read Your Partner

Have two players come out and face each other in silence for a couple of seconds. Then ask each player to say what emotion they’re getting off the other player. Primary emotions — such as happy, sad, anger, fear, or a variation of these — work best.

Once the players have named the emotion, ask them what their relationship is to each other. Then ask them, “What just happened in your relationship?”

The emotions will lead the scene. For instance, if two players say that one looks sad and the other looks afraid, and they determine that they are mother and daughter, they can do a scene where the mother is sad and the daughter is afraid because the mother just found pot in the daughter’s room.

I let the players do this multiple times to build this muscle. For more advanced players, I let them start by naming the emotions, relationship and what just happened, and then go into a scene one line at a time.

2. 60, 45, 30, 15, 10 Second

This is a great exercise that helps players instinctively discover for themselves where the middle of the scene is. Get two players up to do a 60-second, two-person scene. Then they will repeat the scene in 45 seconds, then in 30 seconds, then 15 seconds, and then 10 seconds. By incrementally decreasing the time of the scene, players are forced to get to the meat of the scene quickly.

3. Name Repetition

Two players come out and name each others’ characters in the scene. Beth, Fred, Beth, Fred, Beth, Fred… They keep repeating this until one of the players feels that it’s time to speak with an opening line. “Fred, I can’t believe you showed up for my graduation! I thought you were going to be in Hawaii.”

Once the opening line is spoken, one of the players then drops the repetition and goes into the scene. What’s great about this exercise is it helps the players build tension in the scene, which typically leads to a strong opening line.

Do you have any games or exercises that you use to help you start in the middle of a scene? Let us know in the comments. Don’t forget to register for one of my two upcoming Summer Intensives if you want to learn more about how to start your scenes in the middle — spots are filling quickly!

What I'm Thankful For in Improv

Thanksgiving is a hard holiday. You can feel like this whole gratitude thing is being shoved down your throat. And what if you have nothing to be grateful for? Maybe you aren’t as far as you would like to be in your career or you think people you started out with are passing you by. You may have hit a slump in improv or didn’t make a team/group, or your team/group got broken up. You may feel like the worst one in the class you’re taking right now and you want to quit. How can you find something to be grateful for?

Then an idiot like myself comes along and says something stupid like “Why don’t you make a list of all things you are grateful for in improv?” When you hear this, you go off the handle and call me all sorts of names. You are angry, and you stop reading this blog.

Often in my improv classes, I will say to the class after 20 minutes of some brilliant long form, “What did you guys do well?”

The question is usually met with silence, like I am asking them a trick question. The tension is broken when someone sheepishly answers my question with a question: “I thought our editing was pretty good?”

It lands flat, followed by some more uncomfortable silence.

When I ask the next question, “What do you think you need to work on?”, they come alive. Their faces light up and their voices get strong. “We weren’t listening to each other. We had too many walk-ons. I think we had too many of the same kind of scenes.”

This is how we are wired. We gladly take in the negative and dismiss the positive. Like the two cannot exist at the same time. We are committed to not doing anything right, so we never feel grateful because as improvisers, we think we are pieces of shit.

I am no different. I wish I could say I was. I am working on this, and I want to get better today — right now. Because not being able to look at the positive affects my improv as much as my life.

My favorite story of focusing on the negative was when I was doing one of my many solo shows, and the show had sold out. Instead of being excited that I had a packed house, my attention was focused on my older brother and my sister-in-law, who were not there yet. I did not see anybody else in the theater except the two empty seats that I had saved for them in the front row.

That is called ungratefulness. They ended up show up, but it didn’t matter. I was still angry for days. What the fuck? I could not find the gratitude in a sold out show? God help me.

You don’t want to be that person. I don’t want to be that person. Let’s commit to each other just for today that we are not going to be those kind of people. I will go first. I am going to take no more than two minutes to write ten things I am grateful for. Here I go…

10 Things I Am Grateful For:

  1. I got to travel to a lot of great cities this year, where I taught and did Improv Nerd Live.
  2. I released my latest e-book, Improv Therapy, and it’s been well received.
  3. I had a great team of people working on Improv Nerd this season. A great team!
  4. Stage 773 is an awesome space for the show and they are extremely nice to us. Good People.
  5. I have improved as an improviser.
  6. I have improved as an interviewer.
  7. I get e-mails from people all over the world who listen to the Improv Nerd podcast and read this blog.
  8. My wife, Lauren, who keeps Improv Nerd going
  9. My assistant Chloe, who is amazing at social media and keeps me focused.
  10. My amazing improv students over the past year. You made teaching fun.

Ok, now it’s your turn. You may feel angry and want to scream at me, I don’t care. Just give it a try and see how you feel. I promise I will not ask you to do again until next Thanksgiving.

Hurry! Jimmy Carrane’s Next Art of Slow Comedy class starts Jan. 7! Get in on the ground floor to take all three levels. Pay only $249 now until Dec. 24 ($279 after). Or, sign up for Jimmy’s Two-Person Scene Tune Up Workshop on Jan. 3. Sign up today! 

Lost in Creation

Sometimes in one of my improv classes, a student will say after doing a great scene with a strong character, “I felt lost. I did not know where the scene was going.”

“Good,” I will say in an ironic way. “Stay lost. It’s working for you.”

In our creative process, it’s a good thing to be lost. It means we are learning something new, and it’s right where we need to be. Yes, it’s uncomfortable and painful, but both can be great motivators. The creative process is not a straight line from point A to point B. We are attempting to make art, and sometimes we need to be lost, not knowing what the hell we are doing or why we are doing it. That is incredibly messy and hard to explain, not only to ourselves, but also to others.

It’s much more comfortable when life is predictable, but predictable and art don’t go together.

It’s kind of like if you were a sculptor and were making something out of clay, you need to get in there and get your hands dirty, molding the clay until it takes a shape. At first it just looks like a blob, and you wonder if it’s going to turn into anything, but eventually you reach a point where you stop and call it art.

Recently, I’ve been going through a similar process. For a couple of months, I had been posting on my personal Facebook page like it was my full-time job. I was posting 15 to 30 times a day, sometimes more, jamming up people’s news feeds. Whenever I had a thought, I put it on Facebook. If I had sex, I put it on Facebook. If I hated myself that day, it was on Facebook. Loneliness? Facebook. I had found a character, and I loved writing in that voice. I felt freedom. I felt I was becoming a better writer. I was enjoying it.

Some people liked what I was posting and others hated it. I was polarizing. At the same time, I was starting to feel resentment that I was working so hard and not getting paid. I was hitting a wall or hitting rock bottom, depending on how you looked at it.

I brought it up to my crazy shrink in group therapy. He suggested I stop writing on Facebook, and instead write the posts down in a spiral-bound notebook and save them for another one-man show, because at least then I could make some money off of them.

I got off Facebook that night, and since I didn’t have the instant gratification of an audience, my writing seemed to stop altogether. I was bitter and angry, like I had lost my best friend. I was detoxing. Two weeks later I found my muse as I was on the L heading downtown. I quickly wrote 20 or so posts in my spiral-bound notebook and I brought them into the session and read them out loud. I read 15 or so, after hearing them, the crazy shrink had another crazy suggestion. He encouraged me to get two separate spiral-bound notebooks, one for my “ironic posts” and one for my “sarcastic posts.” What the hell…? (I have neither written any new posts or brought the notebook since then. By telling on myself in this blog, I am hoping that I will get the willingness to go out and start writing again).

For a few seconds, after the crazy shrink said his crazy idea, I felt some shame, thinking that posting like a mad man for the last few months was a waste of time and in the end it had caused more harm than good. I can’t tell you if I am ever going to write another one-man show again, but to me, that does not matter. Because when those six seconds of shame had lifted like a fever, I realized I needed every one of those Facebook posts to get to this point in my creative process.

I am still lost, scared and confused, but one thing is clear: I don’t where the hell this is going to lead me. All I know is I am totally lost in this new process, and it’s exactly where I need to be right now.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? Spots are still available in his next Fundamentals of Improv Class starting June 28. Or, you can take his one-day Art of Slow Comedy Intensive on July 6. Sign up today!


Nothing Found

Sorry, no posts matched your criteria