Why it’s good to have a small improv class

When I first started out teaching improv a million years ago at The Second City Training Center in Chicago, we would occasionally have small classes. Sometimes only five or six people would show up for a Saturday afternoon improv class.

I would get really frustrated when that would happen, and I would find Michael Gellman in the hall, hoping he would join me in my misery, and say something, like “Shit, I only had four people in class today.” Instead, in his deep voice, he would say, “That’s great; those are the best classes.”

Michael said a lot of wise things to me in those days that I did not understand until later in life and this was one of them.

Last Wednesday night, I was on my way to teach my Art of Slow Comedy Level 3 improv class during a huge thunder storm. It was pouring, the kind of rain that floods the street and forces the traffic to stop. A distance that normally takes you a couple minutes to drive now was taking an hour, and anytime we get any sort of moisture in the air in Chicago people for some reason have to drive super slow. When I got to class, my pants were soaked from sprinting one block in the rain from where I had parked. When I got into the classroom, I was surprised that three dedicated improvisers had made it through the storm and were eager to play.

When I first started out teaching, I had an arbitrary number in my head that I needed six people to teach an improv class or I would cancel it. That’s when I lacked confidence and experience. When you teach for yourself, and you don’t have the policy of the institution behind you; you have to carry on. So that’s what I did. I didn’t wait for more people to show up. That wouldn’t be fair to the people who are already there, and I knew on a night like this, three might be all we’d get.

So, I started class with three improvisers, and I decided to have them start doing three-person scenes. About half an hour into class, another student showed up. She said it took her three hours to get there because of the rain — talk about dedication.

Whenever I have a small class, there is always part of me that thinks the students are going to be disappointed that there are only four people in class, and I have fear that they’re going to hold it against me. I usually feel shame and think if my class is small, it must mean I’m a failure.

I could not be more wrong. I got an e-mail from one of my students who loved the smaller improv class because of the individual attention. The woman who had traveled three hours posted something on Facebook about how much she learned that night. And me, I finally understood exactly what Michael Gellman had told me over 20 years ago: A small class is actually a great class.