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5 Improv Teachers Who Influenced Me

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.
  3. 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.
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5 Reasons to Do Object Work in Improv

I promise I will make this brief. Yes, more and more improvisers are eliminating object work from their repertoire, myself included. But really, when we do this we are only cheating ourselves.

Today’s improvisers often think object work is gimmicky and silly, something that’s beneath them. But recently, I interviewed Todd Stashwick – a well-known TV and film actor who was trained in improv – for Improv Nerd, and he reminded me why practicing object work is so important.

Here are my 5 reasons to do object work in an improv scene:

1. Object work make you more creative
Creating a premise or scenario on stage is a lot easier if you are doing something physical, such as creating an object with your hands. By keeping your hands busy, you’re able to free up your mind on stage and stay more in the moment. It helps take the pressure off having to think of the “right” thing to say, and instead lets you react more honestly with believable dialogue.

2. Doing object work helps you judge yourself less on stage
Todd explained that Martin DeMaat, the legendary improv teacher, said doing object work on stage suppresses the judgmental part of the brain because we are too busy doing something physical. It shuts up the critic. Even if we only cut the judgmental part down by 10 percent, I say, it’s something worth doing.

3. Your object work is not as bad as you think it is
Sometimes I will give students in my improv classes an exercise to work on their object work or environment work, and afterwards, they’ll complain that their object work sucked. “I didn’t really see the glass of water I was holding,” they’ll say. I’m here to tell you that most of the time, a student’s object work is 100 times better than the student thinks it was. Trust me, when it comes to object work, your perception of how good it is is way off.

4. It leads to discoveries about your character
Discovery is not limited to the words we speak. When we create a birdcage on stage with a turquoise parrot inside, we learn things about our character. By creating those actions, we might discover that our character is single and lonely, or he is older and agoraphobic. He is definitely low status. All of this by building that bird cage.

5. Object work makes you more interesting to watch
There is nothing more boring to watch than people standing still, acting like talking statues. And doing object work is a great way of freeing you up and getting you to move around. Last weekend, I taught an improv workshop at the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival in Austin, and in the class, two girls did a scene where they were seducing a guy in their apartment. They both went to make the guy a martini in a shaker. And they shook those shakers so damn sexy that they got an enormous laugh from that action. These two improvisers were showing the audience how they were feeling through the activity, rather than telling us how they were feeling, and it was a joy to watch.

If you have any other benefits of doing object work,  please feel free to join the conversation and let us know by commenting below.

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How to Deal with Fear Before a Show

How to Deal with Fear Before a Show

Long-Form improv classesFear before a show is unpredictable. Sometimes I have it, and sometimes I don’t. Last month, I had it before doing “Messing with A Friend” with Susan Messing.

I love Susan as much as a person as I love playing with her. Having Susan ask me to play with her in her improv show is not only an honor, it’s a joy.And that’s where the fear comes in. Any time I’m afraid I’ll lose something that brings me joy, my thinking goes a bit wacky. The day of the show, I started having thoughts like this: “I am going to have a bad show. It’s going to be so bad that Susan will never ask me to play with her again.”

As I went through the day those thoughts became a mantra and that mantra was dangerously close to becominga self-fulfilling prophecy if I didn’t do something about it.

By the afternoon, I was still not in enough pain to tell on myself.  I have a high tolerance for pain and anxiety.So, finally at dinner that night, I told my wife all my doubts and fear about the show that night. My wife Lauren, is wise and supportive and smart, and she just listened, and didn’t try to fix me or worse tell me that I should not feel what I was feeling, which always leads to shame. Immediately I felt some relief, because as painful as it was, I had admitted it, and that helped. But the show wasn’t until 10:30 p.m. I had four more hours to go, and I wasn’t sure how long my good feelings would last.

They didn’t. A half hour before the show, my head filled up with those thoughts again: “I know this show is going to suck. Susan will never have me back. It’s over.” I sat in my car outside the Annoyance Theater on Broadway Avenue, in the seedy north side neighborhood of Uptown in Chicago, and called my friend Ryan. Like my wife, Ryan is wise, and supportive and listened, giving me encouragement, but mostly talking me off the ledge. After a couple of minutes, I realized the ledge was only about three feet off the ground. Most importantly, at no point in our conversation did he say “Don’t be afraid” or “You shouldn’t be afraid.” I don’t call people anymore who say that kind of shit, unless I am trolling for shame.

When it comes to fear about performing, I think we have it all wrong. You can’t deny your fear or just snap your fingers and get rid of it. We’ve got to acknowledge it, so we can use it. Del Close used to say “Follow The Fear.” He got it — we have to admit that we’re afraid first before we can follow it.

When I first started dating Lauren, I was scared to have sex with her. I had all sorts of reasons to be afraid: my lack of experience, my fear of intimacy, fear of getting her pregnant. I know it’s nuts. At the time, my crazy therapist gave me a bit of advice “While you’re having sex, tell her that you are terrified and you want her to keep going.”

This is no different than improvising. Admit you are terrified and keep going.

After getting off the phone with Ryan, I entered the theater, and when we did the show that night it was great, and I realized a big part of the reason it worked was because I had let go of the fear by talking about it with other people.

Martin DeMaat, one of my favorite improv teachers, used to come backstage before a show and hold both hands out and say “Here, give me your fear.”You would then pretend you were handing him over your imaginary fear. It was incredibly hokey and something my friends and I would make fun of him for when we were doing our Martin imitations, but the truth is I do it too by telling people I am afraid.

Over the years I have seen students struggle with fear before a show, especially in my upper level improv classes when they have to perform a long form show for family and friends on the last day of class. Instead of admitting they are afraid, sometimes students end up quitting a class or two before the performance. It’s sad. I wish they knew that it’s normal to be scared and by just showing up, they are succeeding.

And maybe the next time I do Messing with A Friend, and believe me there’ll be a next time, I will be brave enough to share my fear with Susan.