If you have a kid in any grade from preschool to high school, you’re probably well aware that we’re right in the middle of Teacher Appreciation Week. And this week, as I helped get together a gift bag for my daughter’s teacher, I started reflecting on all of the great improv teachers I have had along the way.
When I think of the improv teachers who have had the greatest impact on me, I think about the ones who helped me find my voice, pushed me to take risks that helped build my confidence, or had different approaches or styles that influenced me.
But most importantly, they saw me. They noticed me. They made me feel I was worthy.
And the teachers that really made a difference in my life also challenged me, like a good teacher can when someone shows potential.
Sometimes it was uncomfortable. Sometimes it was scary. And often, the hardest classes were the ones where I learned the most.
I really had respect for almost all of my early improv teachers, which back in the ’80s was not a very cool job title to have, if it was even one. And I’ve had a lot of respect for other improv teachers whom I’ve learned from along the way.
So, in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, here are five improv teachers who have had a huge impact on me as an improviser, and yes, even a person.
- Martin DeMaat
I studied with Martin at Columbia College in the late ’80s in the theater department even though I was an advertising major. Martin was patient and kind. He was a direct disciple of Viola Spolin and to this day I still consider him to be one of the best hands-on improv teachers I have ever had.If comedy is timing, Martin was the right teacher for me at the right time. I was in my 20s, and I was lost. Even though I was in college and had declared a major, I had no idea what I really wanted to do with my life. But Martin’s classes were filled with love and support, and in his class, I felt like I could do anything.When students tell me I’m a very compassionate and patient teacher, I know that’s because of Martin’s influence.
Another thing I learned from Martin was the importance of play. I would relentlessly complain to Martin about having to play warm up games. I’d ask him, “Why can’t we go right into doing scene work at the start of class? Why do we have to play these silly games?” He explained to me the method behind his madness — that they were designed to get us to play and that once he saw us having fun and laughing he knew he could go into the scene work. I have not forgotten that lesson and I carry it with me in every class I teach.
Martin believed improv could change the world, even if he had to do it one student at time, which is what happened in my case.
- Del Close
Del was completely the opposite personality and had a completely different approach to improv than Martin, though I believe they were after the same goal.Del was a big personality. He was gruff and intimating, and when he lost his patience with a student, he could be downright mean. He was not afraid to stop a scene immediately and give you a hard note that seemed to go on for an hour. On the flip side if you were ever lucky enough to get his praise, you would float out of his class.In terms of style of improv, I don’t think anyone had a bigger influence on me than Del. When I entered his class, I had just finished taking classes at Second City, with enough success that it had gone to my head. I had it all figured out. I was arrogant, to say the least. I had no idea about building a scene. To me, a scene was a series of one-liners, where I got most of the laughs.
Del turned that upside down. He believed in truth in comedy, which is something I connected to immediately and something I am even more fascinated with today, more than 30 years later. He not only gave me permission to go dark in my scenes, but he actually encouraged it. What I’m most grateful to him for is that he taught me to slow the fuck down — that improv doesn’t have to be rapid fire. This was my first introduction to slow comedy.
- Liz Allen
I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to co-teach with Liz Allen back in the early 2000s. We co-taught The Individual Assessment Workshop, which then lead to us writing a book together called Improvising Better. Liz was one of the best improv teachers I have ever worked with. She not only loved teaching improv, but she was also so connected to the students and cared so much about their progress. At the time, I was a bit of a long form snob, but not Liz — she got excited teaching long from as much as short form. Liz had also been a student of Del’s, who would talk about group mind all of the time, and I am not sure I fully understood it until working with Liz. Man, was she was passionate about Group Mind.
When you co-teach with someone, you not only get exposed to the games they teach, but also the way they teach them, which is invaluable. It’s like grad school for an improv teacher. And I learned so much from co-teaching with Liz. In fact, whenever I teach the vulnerable circle or tell one of my students who has his arms crossed to unfold his arms to stay open to learning, I always think about Liz.
- Norm Holly
Though I never technically took one of Norm’s classes, we have maintained a student-teacher relationship over the years. When I first started teaching improv at Second City, Norm was someone I would always reach out to to ask for help. He was always generous with his time and experience. When I would have a problem with a student, Norm would help me with what to say and was even willing to go with me when I went to talk to them.Where I learned the most from him was when I was directed by him in Tim O’Malley’s “God Show.” Norm was a master at directing. It was amazing to watch. He had no ego. I’d watch him time and time again drop his agenda. The genius of Norm is that he knew how to exploit the actors’ strengths to get the best performance out of them. He changed the blocking for one actor who had a hard time with his original direction and instead put him in chair for his scene. He was constantly improvising and adjusting in the moment. Nothing was an obstacle for Norm. With me, he said, “You are a strong improviser. You will improvise instead of memorize lines.” He was right. I was trying to be a great actor, but he saw my strength and enhanced it. The result was he got a great performance out of me and everyone in the cast with a very light touch. What was even more impressive and something I try to emulate in my teaching is that Norm could say very little and get so much out of an actor. He would give you one tiny little note and it was as if he had opened the flood gates to your imagination. Whenever I give a note to one of my students, I think about how would Norm do it.
- Jeffrey Roth
Dr. Jeffrey Roth is a psychiatrist, not an improviser, but if you know me, it probably won’t surprise you that my group therapist made this list. I have been working with him for close to 14 years. He challenged me early on that if I am improv teacher, I should be improvising my lesson plan along with my class. This forced me to be more in the moment and to serve the needs of my students over my agenda.He taught me that I don’t need to know every answer to every question from my students, but that as a class, we can find the answers together, or as he would say it in his Brooklyn accent, “The answers are in the room.”But most importantly, and this took easily ten years, that not only am I an expert in improv, but also that teaching improv actually brings me a lot of joy.
When I think back on these five teachers, I know I would not be where I am today without their influence. But I’ve also learned that our teachers aren’t gods. No one is perfect, and you can take what you want from them and leave the rest. I have been so lucky to get work with some great teachers, and looking forward to continuing to learn even more from others, too.
So which teachers have influenced you? If you’ve got a minute, please share with us in the comment section below which teachers have inspired you.
Want to take your two-person scenes to the next level? Sign up now for Jimmy’s Advanced Two-Person Scene Tune Up on June 1! Save $20 when you sign up by May 18.