Giving Improv Notes: How to Self-Coach Your Team

Last week, I talked about how to give good improv notes if you are an improv coach or director. This week, I’m going to give some tips on how to give improv notes to your own teammates — a much trickier proposition.

First, let me say, if you are part of an improv group and you aren’t using an improv coach because you don’t want to spend the money or you think you are “beyond” having a coach, stop reading right now and go get one. You’ll thank me later.

However, if you are part of a group of improvisers who can’t get an improv coach – maybe because your group is made up of the most experienced people in your community – then you are in the unfortunate situation of having to coach yourselves. This can be really tricky, because you don’t want to be too critical of your own teammates, but it can be done.

In fact, I have been on many self-coached teams and groups over the years. Here’s what has worked for me.

1. Use “I” statements
The number one thing you want to avoid when you’re coaching yourselves is blame, whether you’re blaming the group or an individual. Sometimes it’s ok to blame the audience, but do it sparingly. Instead, get in the habit of commenting on what you did or did not do well in the show. You can say things like, “I was totally lost in the opening,” or “I really liked the scene I did with Jenny, it was so much fun.” It seems small, but it’s important because you are sharing your experience, which is all you ever have to share, rather than telling someone else what they did wrong. You may think its a small thing, but it will set you up for the next step.

2. Own Your Part
My experience with working with people who have been improvising a long time is they don’t want to call out other people’s behavior or give other performers notes. That means it’s up to each individual to be honest, vulnerable and take responsibility for their moves. This will give other people in the group permission to do the same. For example, you might say something like, “When you came into the scene, I was confused about whether you were doing a call back or not from the beginning.” By you admitting that you were confused, you may get them to admit that they were confused, too.

3. Ask the Group Questions
Remember, the goal is to learn from each other, not tell each other what to do. That is how you get better. One thing I do to learn from other members is to ask them questions. For example, you might say, “What could I have done to make it clearer that I was doing a call back?” Or you could say, “I thought the opening seemed flat. What did you guys feel?” If you get a lot of heads nodding, you could say, “How could we have done differently for the next time?” I have always found this helpful.

4. Don’t Dominate the Discussion
Just like you don’t want to be in every scene in an long form improv show, you also don’t want to be dominating the notes session. If you realize you are dominating, then maybe you’d secretly like to direct. Be aware that if you hijack the notes session, others may be less inclined to be involved in the discussion. If you find that happening, stop and ask them what they thought, or just take a break and let some else lead. Not everyone is going to want to participate and that is fine. Your job is provide some room every now and then so other people can.

5. Bring in your sense of humor
Just like the improv show, make the notes session fun. When I played with Carl and The Passions at iO Chicago, with TJ Jagodowski, Noah Gregoropoulos, Bill Boehler, Shad Kunkle, Jordan Klepper, Katie Rich, and Paul Grondy, I sometimes had a better time in the notes session than I did during the show because weren’t taking what we did on stage or ourselves too seriously. I cannot express how crucial this is, because sometimes improvisers want to make their improv life and death, and it’s not.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? Sign up for his next Art of Slow Comedy: Advanced Ensemble Class, starting April 15! The class runs on Wednesdays from 6-8 p.m. and includes a performance on the last day. Register today!

7 Secrets to Giving Great Improv Notes

As an improv director or coach, giving notes after a show is an art. Like improvising, you can only get better at teaching and directing improv by doing it and making a lot of mistakes along the way. Though my methods may seem a little unconventional, I wanted to share them with you because I know there are lots of people out there who have to give improv notes and feel like they don’t have much guidance in how to do it well.

If this is a skill you would like to sharpen, here are my 7 Secrets To Giving Great Improv Notes After A Show:

1. Make it a conversation, not a lecture
When you’re giving notes after a show, remember that you don’t have to carry the whole load yourself. You goal is for the group to take some responsibility for spotting their own “so called” mistakes — this strengthens the ensemble. After a show, before I open my big, fat mouth with some brilliance, I like to first ask the group, “How do you think the show went?” Then I ask, “What did you like about it? What could we have done better?”

I cannot tell you how important it is to get them to start talking first, so you can see where they are at and give yourself some direction about where you would like to go with your own feedback. You are following them. Sometimes, because their adrenalin is still going and their hearts are still pounding, they may not answer immediately. Don’t panic. Eventually they will participate. Remember, you are giving them an opportunity to be part of the conversation, and you will see big rewards if you let them join in.

2. Ask for Feedback
If you have specific note for a performer, first ask them the question: “Would you like feedback?” This may seem small, but it’s hugely important because it makes them more receptive to your note, and again, lets them take more responsibility for their own development. By asking if they want feedback before giving it, you build mutual respect and trust between you and the player, and it will also help you keep your ego in check.

3. Always start with something positive
I picked this up years ago from truly a master improv teacher at The Second City, the late Martin DeMaat. When he gave you notes, he always started with the positive notes first, what you did right, before going into the the trickier constructive criticism. When I remember to give positive notes first, I find that improvisers are less defensive and more receptive to the negative notes you give them.

4. Replace the word should with could
“Should” is a short fuse to the shame bomb. When players come off stage from an improv show, they are vulnerable. Respect that. They may feel excited, exposed, nervous, afraid, happy – and, yes, shame. If they are already feeling unsure about whether they screwed up, pointing out what they “should” have done is a sure way to make them feel even more shame. Or, on the flip side, if they felt they did a great show and are filled with joy, they may be looking for a buzz kill – that one thing that they did wrong that they can focus on. The quickest way to find that is with the word “should.” I have found replacing the word “should” with the word “could” makes a great substitute.

5. Think Macro vs. Micro
When you give comments to a group, instead of breaking down each scene, I think it’s better to make comments about the overall show. You might say something like, “Our edits were great, our energy and variety was awesome, and I loved seeing characters that I had never seen before. But I felt your energy was flat by the fourth scene, and I think we could have done more agreement. We seemed to be cherry picking ideas.” Similarly, when you give notes to individual players, focus on their patterns, rather than specific moves. For example, you could say, “In the first scene, you needed to agree right from the top, and later, in scene six, you also needed to agree right from the top.”

6. Focus on One or Two Ideas Per Person
When giving improv notes to specific improvisers in the group, you want to be concise and focus on only one or two areas where each person needs improvement. I have found as both a player and a coach/director that people can only absorb one or two things to work on from each notes session, so there is no sense flooding their circuits with too much information. Less is more.

7. Keep the notes session short
Giving notes after an improv show should not be a class. It’s not a lecture. Watch the clock. Keep the notes session short, whether it was a good show or a bad show. In Asaf Ronen’s book, Directing Improv, he gives a good rule of thumb: “If you are spending more then 10 minutes in notes after a show, you are trying to do too much.”

Next week, I’ll give some tips on how to give notes when you are experienced improv group who does not use a coach or director.

Do you have any tips on how to give good improv notes? I’d love your ideas.

Don’t miss your chance to study with Jimmy Carrane! His next Art of Slow Comedy: Advanced Ensemble Class starts April 15. The class runs Wednesdays from 6-8 p.m. Early Bird registration ends March 25, so sign up today!