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The Importance of Expressing Yourself

As improvisers, expressing ourselves is what we do. We do not have a choice: We are born this way. It’s no accident we are drawn toward the performing arts: sketch, stand-up, improv, and acting. These are the way we express ourselves.

For me, the need to express myself is part of who I am at the core. It’s the thing that keeps me alive; it’s my oxygen. When others try to shut me down, they are suffocating me. When I’m told I can’t say something or I shouldn’t say something, I feel like I can’t breathe, like they are trying to kill a part of me.

For years, I never quite knew why I loved teaching improv so much, even after all these years, but something that happened last month made me realize it’s because it gives me the chance to encourage others to express themselves, and there is nothing that is more important to me.

Recently my world changed when my father died. A few months before my dad’s death, I had asked him how I could help him prepare for his death, and he told me to speak at his funeral and make it funny.

But after he actually died, my family did everything they could to prevent me from speaking at his funeral. My family tried to ignore me, guilt me and emotionally blackmail so I would not speak. I’m not sure what exactly they were afraid I would say, but they said things like, “We don’t trust you,” and “save your negativity for your blog.”

At the eleventh hour, the night before the funeral, a peace agreement was struck between me and my mom where she agreed that I would be speaking at the funeral along with my brother and my sister, and we would each get three minutes. Nine minutes total to sum up my dad’s 81 years of life.

When I got to the church in the morning, my pregnant wife, Lauren, and I were ignored by my family and then blindsided by the priest, who told me that the plans had changed and now nobody was going to speak at the funeral. My brother and sister gladly threw themselves under the bus so I would not speak, and of course, like was true during most of my childhood, my mom was nowhere be found.

To say I was angry was an understatement. I went ballistic, postal, into a full-on black-out-rage. I stood up on a wooden church pew and demanded to speak, and then began reading the eulogy I had prepared as people were still filing in for the funeral.

Out of nowhere, a stranger in a dark navy suit tackled me off the pew. I hit the ground and he would not let go of my legs. I heard one of my loving family members yell out “Call the police!” Some of my friends started chanting, “Let him speak! Let him speak!” The cops showed up, and the church now had the same hostile energy as a Trump rally.

The priest rushed over trying to calm me down asking me to come down off the pew, so we could talk. The choice for me was clear: Either I was going to speak or I was going to get arrested. It was the bravest, craziest and worst day of my life. More words were exchanged between me and the priest. I saw terror in peoples’ faces. I know I was scared shitless. The priest, either listening to God or fearing a riot, agreed I could speak. He gave me three minutes, and said I needed to speak right then, before the mass started, as people continued to pour into the church.

When they realized I was going to speak, my whole family, including all of my nieces and nephews, cleared out of the church like I was some sort of terrorist with a bomb.

Only one of my brothers stayed to listen as I hobbled up to podium to read my eulogy with the help of my friends and even Lauren’s parents joining me on the altar. I did the best I could as I try to read the eulogy. I had read it to Lauren earlier that morning at home and it had made both of us cry, but at this point, my heart was racing, my voice was hoarse from screaming, so let’s just say it did not have the same effect it did when I rehearsed it at home.

It’s been almost five weeks since the funeral where I created a scene in the same church where I had both my first communion and confirmation, and now apparently my bar mitzvah. I am still feeling shame, anger, hurt and deep sadness. I think I may be suffering the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am not only suffering trauma over that clusterfuck of my dad’s funeral, but I’m also suffering trauma for an entire life of not being allowed to express myself in my family.

But in the aftermath of that experience, I have discovered a new appreciation for what I do as an improv teacher. It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to help people to get to express themselves. I have taken this for granted. As improvisers, the need to express ourselves is who we are. We don’t not need to apologize for it, only to nurture it, for what we have is a gift that is as precious as gold.

How to Improve Your Side Coaching

If you’re an improv teacher, you’re probably familiar with the concept of side coaching, where you make subtle comments to your students while they are doing a scene to give them some direction. The concept of side coaching is to help your student see something they can’t see in the moment.

Sounds easy, right? But in fact, doing it well can be tricky. Side coaching is not an exact science, but it is a skill that can be learned, and the best way I have learned is through trial and error.

Here are a few other tips that I have learned over the years that will help you give more effective feedback. See more tips from Jay Sukow, an improv teacher in Los Angeles, below:

  1. One size does not fit all
    Remember, what works for one person may not work for the rest. Students all learn differently and some have more experience than others. Take this into consideration. I’ve had students who could not be heard on stage and my side coaching for the whole term has been to “share your voice with us” until they could be louder. Until they could be heard on stage, everything else is pointless. Once they master this, then you can move on.

    At the same time, a more advanced player may need to be working on going deeper in their scene work or working on emotions. Get to know your students and realize when it comes to side coaching one size does not fit all.

  2. Remember You’re Not Always Right
    Sometimes when I am side coaching during a scene, it will put students in their heads. You can see it their face; they just look confused and then they shut down. When that happens, you just have to let it go, admit your comment did not work and move on. In my experience, 70 percent of my comments are right on the mark and 30 percent are off the mark. This can be tough on your ego, but by admitting that you’re not always right and letting it go, you are teaching your students by example about humility — something that is necessary in this work and life.
  3. Make one-word comments
    When it comes to saying the perfect comment when you’re side coaching, less is more. I have found that boiling your thoughts down to one word — preferably an action word like “attack,” “heighten” or “pounce,” or a phrase like “find the agreement” or “do less” – is the most effective tool for side coaching.

Side Coaching Tips from Jay Sukow

The two notes I give most often when side coaching: say yes and like each other. Those two will help any scene succeed.

Here are a couple of other tips:

  1. Set expectations
    Set expectations at the top of the class to let your students know what’s happening. Some may not even know what side coaching is. You can say something like, “I’ll be doing a little side coaching. Think of me as a voice in your head. But don’t break the reality of the scene to check in with me. Stay with your scene partner.”
  1. Decide what results you’re looking for
    Before you make a comment, think about what you are trying to achieve. Give clear, simple direction as to what you want to see. Do you want to push your students to take bigger risks? To become more active? And most importantly, do they even need your help? Or are you side coaching for your own ego?
  1. Don’t direct the scene
    Avoid being too heavy handed or directing the scene. I rarely side coach at the beginning of the scene, unless it’s to remind them to say yes or like each other. Remember: It’s not your scene. What are they trying to achieve? Guide them toward that. I’ll say things like “more” or “stay active” or “follow your body” or “and” or “you’re not angry with them.”

Interested in studying with Jimmy Carrane? Sign up for his Art of Slow Comedy Level 2 class, starting April 6. Early Bird deadline ends March 23. Sign up today!

How to Deal With Uncomfortable Situations in an Improv Class

There has been a lot of discussion in improv lately about classes where students (women in particular) don’t feel safe. And many people who teach improv are now thinking about what the best way is to handle these kinds of situations in class.

Recently, Jay Sukow, who teaches improv classes in Los Angeles, received a question from another improv teacher about how to handle situations in class that make people feel uncomfortable, and Jay asked me if I would chime in with my advice as well.

Q: What do instructors need to keep in mind/be aware of/do that will help avoid students being uncomfortable or harassed in class and help students who are doing things that harass or make others uncomfortable recognize that and correct it?

Jimmy Carrane: I think the most important thing is to create an environment where people feel safe and feel that they have a voice, where if something happens, and believe me, it will, that they are comfortable discussing it in class.

I don’t believe that making people feel comfortable comes by stopping people from saying certain things. It’s about having a discussion about how students are feeling about any given situation in a class.

I accomplish this in my classes by encouraging my students to speak their process. On the first day of class, I set the tone by going over a couple boundaries for the class. I tell them that if things come up for them, they can speak their feelings around it. If they feel angry or shame or “in their head,” or if my side coaching did not help them, they can talk about it.

To give students the space to talk about their process, I, as the teacher, have to shut the fuck up. Improv shouldn’t be a lecture class; it’s not the Jimmy Carrane Show. Sometimes my students get frustrated with me because I don’t give more direct feedback, but I do that so that I empower the rest of the group to speak and I am not the dominate voice.

Yes, I am the authority in the room, but I am not God. My classes are a collaboration. When students have a question, I turn it back to the class. The answer is in the room, and the answer does not have to come out of my mouth. By doing this, students become more comfortable speaking their process.

Remember, no matter what guidelines you set in class, things will come up: People will be triggered, boundaries will be pushed. You cannot teach improv without this happening. How you handle it separates the good teachers from the great ones.

Also, know that each class is different, just like each person is different, and what makes one person uncomfortable may not phase another. It is not black and white. It is art, and the last I checked, art is still pretty subjective.

More than ever, teachers need to be present. We need to be tuned in to our students. When something happens in class that may be sensitive, it’s our job to make sure it gets talked about. You’d be amazed when issues get discussed in the moment how often they resolve themselves.

Jay Sukow: This is a great question and comes at a time long overdue. We need to change. Change is usually met with resistance, but leads to better outcomes. As improvisers, we embrace change, so working together, we can make this happen. There can be a difference between being uncomfortable and harassed. A student feeling uncomfortable because they don’t like being in front of people is different than a student being uncomfortable because they keep getting inappropriately touched. You must be aware of both. Look, there is no place for harassment in class. Period. It’s all about safety, support and the joy of play.

Here are my suggestions for dealing with uncomfortable situations in improv class.

  1. AWARENESS. Be aware from the first second of the first class all the way until the last second of the class. You must emphasize a safe and supportive environment over everything else. And keep reinforcing it. Look in people’s eyes. Become an expert in reading body language. You’ll see signs. People tell you with their eyes they’re uncomfortable. You’ll see them physically recoil. Certain people will get up for a scene and no one will join them. These are all signs.
  1. ADDRESS. Address inappropriate behavior the first time it happens in class — don’t wait to see if things will change. Stop the action and take the opportunity to have a discussion with the class. I’ve had classes where men referred to women in the scene as the name “woman.” Or touch someone who isn’t open to being touched. Or force a sexual situation. Or call someone an asshole, bitch or even worse. Of call someone of color a stereotypical name. The moment it happens, I’ll either say “No” or “Make another choice” or stop the scene immediately. I’ll ask that person if they understood why I did what I did. You might have to have difficult one-on-one conversations with the offenders. “Why are you censoring me?” “I don’t see anything wrong with it.” “Everyone else is fine with it.” “What, people can’t take a joke?” “My character thought…” or “But her character was playing a bitch.” Instead of arguing, tell them, “I don’t want to see it in my class.” I’ll also ask the class to help me explain why it was inappropriate. If everyone in the class thought there was nothing wrong with the inappropriate action, I say I don’t want to see it in my class. I guarantee you that there are people too afraid to speak up about their discomfort.
  1. ACTION. Check with the class from time to time and ask them. Tell them that you are always available outside of class to talk. Educate yourself; talk to people of color, women, people of different sexual orientations, and different ages about what harassment they’ve been subjected to in class or shows. You’d be surprised. And the answer is not to defend action. The answer is to listen with empathy and a nonjudgmental attitude. On my Today Improv blog, I’ve had several guest posts about this very topic. There are also great Facebook pages like Co-Ed Forum regarding harassment and discrimination within improv to help. Create a safe environment and you will see incredible things.

Interested in studying with Jimmy Carrane? Sign up for his next Art of Slow Comedy one-day workshop on May 7. If you’re coming to Chicago for the Chicago Improv Festival, don’t miss it! Only $99 if you register by April 23.

6 Tips to Being a Better Improv Teacher

A lot more people are teaching improv these days than ever before. I could not be more excited about how many people are going into this amazing profession, and I also know that there aren’t many places where you can get advice on how to be a good improv teacher.

So Jay Sukow, a former improv teacher at Second City who now is teaching his own classes in Los Angeles, and I decided we wanted to share with you a few of our favorite tips that we have found over the years that have made us better improv teachers.

In the months to come we hope to answer your questions about teaching improv, so if you have any questions for us please feel free to e-mail me at jimmy@jimmycarrane.com. Enjoy.

  1. Improvise Along With The Class
    If you are teaching improvisation, you might want to think about using some of it in your classroom. If your students are pulling you in a different direction than what you had planned to teach, follow them, just like you do with your partner in an improv scene. Your lesson plan is not as important as what is going on in the moment. Sound familiar? — JC
  2. Go With the Flow
    Over prepare, then throw your lesson plan out the window and hear what the students want to do. Go with the flow. Be open for playing a game or a scene differently than what you’re used to. Treat the mistakes as gifts. — JS
  3. Warm-Up Games Matter
    Today, people give short shift to warm-up games. They think they are stupid or unimportant. I disagree. The warm-up game portion of the class is the best time to evaluate the energy of the class. Are the students tired? Are they overly talkative? Are they tentative? Reading their energy is a great first step in connecting with your students so you can guide them where they need to go in the rest of that day’s class. — JC
  4. Be Professional
    ​Show up early. Arrange the room as you’d like it. Want chairs in a circle? Put them in a circle. Want a row of chairs? Cool, do that. And leave the room cleaner than you found it. Be excited to be teaching the greatest life skill ever: improvisation. Your attitude sets the tone, so if you’re not excited, why should anyone else be? Being a professional also means not taking anything personally, whether a student thinks you have nothing to offer and this class is a waste of their time or they think you’re the greatest teacher they’ve ever had. — JS
  5. The Answers Are In The Group
    One of the most frequently asked questions I get after class is “What do you think I need to work on?” I encourage students who ask me that to bring that question into the next class. Again, this is a concept I learned in improv: By collaborating we will come up with something better than if it’s just me doing it alone. By bringing the entire class into the discussion, the answer we come up with together is always 84% better than if it’s just me trying play the expert. — JC
  1. Create a Safe Space
    ALWAYS maintain a safe environment that is conducive to learning and taking risks. Respect that people have different issues with personal space and with others invading that space. ​Don’t be afraid to call out inappropriate behavior — especially sexist, racist, ageist, homophobic, and stereotypical behaviors — that’s your job. Improv is all inclusive. You have to protect the group and the individuals within it. Also, people have food allergies and drinks spill, so I ask people not to bring in food or drink, unless it’s water. — JS

Do you have any tips or suggestions on how to be a good improv teacher? Let us know!

Are you interested in studying with Jimmy Carrane? There are a few spots left in his Art of Slow Comedy Class Level 1, starting Feb. 17!

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!

An improv teacher's legacy

Last Sunday was the three-year anniversary of the death of Mary Scruggs. Mary was head of the writing program at Second City. She was a brilliant improv teacher and a gifted writer.

I remember when I heard that she had died, I was floored. I was in the suburbs about to teach a workshop for a group of writers when the president of the organization pulled me aside and said: “Do you know Mary Scruggs?”

“Yes,” I said, anticipating he was going to say his son had taken a class from her and loved it.

“Did you know she died?” he asked.

“Huh?” I replied. I stared at him like I had been hit by a brick on the side of my head.

“It was in the paper this morning,” he said as he handed me her obituary that he had torn out of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Mary was only 46 years old when she died suddenly, leaving a husband, a teenage son, a sister, friends and hundreds of students whom she had taught behind.

I couldn’t believe it. And on top of it, I had only five minutes before I had to get up and teach 30 people how to play for two and a
half hours.

I didn’t know Mary well, but I had known her through her reputation and in passing when I taught at Second City. I had called her a month before to get some help in writing a book, and I found her to be very encouraging, direct and generous with her advice. Like all brilliant improv teachers, she made you look at things differently, and I was planning to call her again to follow up on one of the new ideas she had inspired.

It was that phone call that had made me feel connected to her — that and Second City, because despite all its dysfunction, if you have
worked there in any capacity, you feel like you’re part of the family.

Her funeral was on one of those cold, gray January Chicago mornings that you never get used to no matter how long you live here. The memorial service was at an old musty funeral parlor on Western Avenue on the northwest side of the city. The place was jammed with friends, family, teachers and, most impressively, her students. The lucky ones got to stand; others squeezed themselves in the doorways or jammed into nearby rooms with bad acoustics.

Her husband, her sister, her friends and people she had worked with came up to the podium one by one  sharing stories about Mary,
capturing her personality, her gifts and what she had meant to them. Her sister came to the podium speaking in a cadence very similar to Mary’s, telling the story of how as kids, they created skits on their pink canopy bed, and how they had made a commitment to play at a very early age.

Tears flowed uncontrollably. I thought of the Studs Terkel quote when he was asked what the meaning of life was, and he said “To make a dent,” and how she had accomplished that at 46. Her funeral service was a thing of beauty, an incredible tribute.

I am glad I attended because it was good to see for myself what a huge contribution an improv teacher can make in other people’s lives. It has always been easier for me to see the value in others than I see in myself, and that day, I could not only see all of the wonderful things that everyone saw in Mary, but I also had hope that one day I would be able to see wonderful things in myself .

Often I whine to my wife, Lauren, about my career and she will say, “Can’t you see how gifted of a teacher you are?” I cannot hear it. I
definitely cannot feel it. I don’t want to. I think unless I am a big TV star or movie star I am worthless — anything else in between does
not count.

I remember talking to Tim O’Malley years ago about this subject, and he said something to me from one of my favorite improvisers, Dave Pasquesi: “You can influence more people in the classroom than on the set of a TV show.” I had shrugged that off, but Mary’s funeral made me think he might be right.

In the Chicago improv community, when one of the good ones goes, we all feel it. We take it hard. Especially someone like Mary. It leaves a gaping hole, a giant crater. Like when Martin DeMatt or Del Close died, everyone realized that no one will ever be able to fill their shoes. Improv teachers who have been influenced by Mary will find the elements of Mary that speak to them and carry on her work. The ones who have already been teaching according to the gospel of Mary will find new discoveries and will continue to invoke her name in their classroom. This will be part of Mary’s legacy, a teacher’s legacy and nothing is more of a fitting tribute to a great teacher than the ability to inspire even when you’re gone.

Here’s hoping we all get the opportunity to inspire others, including me.