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3 Ways to Empower Your Improv

3 Ways To Empower Your Improv

Jimmy Carrane and Matt Besser on Improv NerdDo you ever get discouraged in your improv and want to quit? Have you tried out for a team and not made it, or watched as other people from your level move up and you don’t? If so, you’re not alone. I’ve felt like giving up so many times throughout the years, I can’t even count.

But lately, I’ve been realizing instead of focusing on what I’m not getting, I need to focus on what I like to do. Once I do that, I’ll be passionate and excited about improv again, and less likely to throw in the towel.

Here are my top 3 tips for what you can do to empower your improv:

1. Do the improv you like and stop judging the rest

People often worry that they’re doing the wrong kind of improv. If they do short form, they think they should be doing long form. If they like long form, they think they should be mastering sketch.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There is no right way to improvise.

I learned this lesson again recently when I was out in LA about to teach at Miles Stroth’s workshop. I woke up that morning and all I could think was, “I’m not the UCB, I’m not IO, I’m not Miles. How am I going to adapt to all of those popular LA styles of improv in this class?”

The thing is, I wasn’t. If I even tried to, I’d be an even bigger fraud than I already think I am. After calling my friend, Dan, who talked me off the ledge and said “The students who signed up for your workshop signed up to get you, not what they already get in LA.”

Oh, how quickly I forget the lesson I teach in my improv classes: “You are enough.”

Today, more than ever, there are not just two flavors of improv. There are close to 31 flavors, something for everyone. Sometimes we squabble over the different styles, and get caught up in whose method is right or wrong or what Del really meant that we lose sight of the fact that they’re all good ways. The only thing that matters is doing the style that you have fun doing. That’s it. So if you like the UCB style, do it. If you like to play slower like TJ and Dave, do it. If you like musical improv or short form or long form, do it. As long as you love doing it, do it, and stop judging the rest, because who cares?

2. Don’t let anyone or any institution say you can’t do it

I have seen great improvisers quit because they didn’t make a team, or their team was broken up, or they didn’t get hired by certain theater. If they knew it or not, they had given all their power to one place. They were looking for permission from one place, and when that place said no, they just gave up.

I have been on teams at IO that were broken up, I was in show called Jazz Freddy and saw most of my friends get hired by Second City. I have taught at institutions that wanted to renegotiate my terms and I chose to leave. Every time one of these blows happened, I was hurt and angry and felt sorry for myself, but after I got over the pain and embarrassment, those moments not only turned into something else good, but they turned into something bigger. We said it in our book, Improvising Better, and I believe it even more now after coming back from LA: Improv is bigger than all the institutions combined.

3. Focus on yourself

I know it’s hard, especially if you are as co-dependent as I am. When I was interviewing Matt Besser last week for Improv Nerd, a student said some people were being allowed to move up the level system at UCB who weren’t very good. What I would like to say to her today is “Focus on yourself.” It’s not your job to change the institution. Who is in the class is none of your business. When you’re thinking “why are they in the class?,” you are wasting your energy and taking away from your learning. Let the UCB worry about who is in the class. That’s why you’re paying them all that money, so you can be freed up to learn and have fun. If you need to say something to the institution to let your resentment go, I support you, but remember that things might not change. Regardless of what you’re focusing on — from the type of students in your class, to the teacher, to how you think the theater handles business — the result will be the same: Your improv will suffer. If you’re looking for drama, you won’t have to look too hard to find it. Just try to use that drama on stage instead of off.

Making a Commitment

Upright Citizens Brigade foundersMaking a Commitment to your Improv Group

Long-form improvisation has been booming in the last ten years, but for some reason, there still only seem to be a handful of improv groups that are truly great.

We all know them. We all inspire to be like them. Then why aren’t there more? The answer is simple. It’s the thing that is hardest to do in life, and even harder to do in a group, and that’s called commitment. I’ve seen it firsthand. I have performed in, directed, and watched good groups become great because of it, and I’ve seen groups with great potential die without it.

Back in the ’90s, there was a group here in Chicago called The Upright Citizens Brigade. You may have heard of them. It was made up of Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts. After a couple of years of success here in Chicago, the group decided to move to New York with a lot of raw talent, a vision and most importantly, a commitment to each other. (It has been rumored that Besser picked New York over LA so the group would not get cherry picked by talent agents and people in the biz.)

Years ago, I interviewed Matt Walsh on public radio and he told me that once they got to New York, the four of them would get together every year and make a commitment to the group for the following year. They didn’t just assume they had a commitment to each other; instead, they all sat down and said it out loud.

In the sometimes passive world of improvisation, that commitment paid off, leading to a TV series on Comedy Central and the creation of a theater and a training center in both New York and Los Angeles. Whether they knew it or not, they were creating something bigger than the four of them combined. Today, the UCB is one of the most respected institutions in comedy, and that came directly from commitment.

A little before the time the UCB left to go to New York, I was lucky enough to be part of a long-form group in Chicago called Jazz Freddy. Our show was ground breaking; we took long-form and turned it into theater. Sure, we had some talent and we had a vision to play a certain style, but what made our group great was our commitment to each other and to our process. We agreed that we were going to treat Jazz Freddy like getting cast in a play. We freed up our schedules to work only on the show. We rehearsed three times a week for six weeks, and if you had too many conflicts you were out of the cast.

Years later Dave Koechner, a member of the group, told me that he thought maybe we were a little too harsh with all of the commitment we demanded. I disagree. I think we put the process first and the personalities second, and because of it we became a cohesive group. People started to notice us. Some people in the cast who had been forgotten by Second City got hired off of our show, and we began to get respect.

In this sometimes lazy art form, improvers have to realize that great groups don’t just fall out of the sky. If you want to take your improv group from good to great, you must start by making a commitment to each other. Once that happens, watch out. The next thing you know people will be taking you seriously, and with that will come respect, admiration and influencing others.

Commitment can transcend talent, but sadly, most improvisers never even give it a try to find out.

Today, I know it may be unrealistic to have a group to commit to a year together without doing any other shows. Usually improvisers are afraid they’ll miss out on other performance opportunities that will come along. So what if you committed for a run of a show, really committed like you had been cast in a play? Spend eight weeks working with just one group, and then you are free to do as you please. What is the worst thing that could happen?

Maybe five years from now some young students will come up to you at a bar and say “I saw your show, and I went back to my group and said ‘Let’s do what they are doing!’” Would that be so bad?