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Embracing Virtual Improv Classes

It is an understatement to say things have changed in the world, and improv is no exception. For the time being we cannot safely meet in person to do shows, hold rehearsals or attend classes. All the performing arts are in limbo.

Some improvisers have moved fast, and have already started doing online classes, rehearsals and even shows, using Zoom, which is a video conferencing service.

When I heard this, I was skeptical. I was resistant. Just ask my wife Lauren.

I would rather walk around filled with gloom and doom than take action. (Side note: I don’t like change. And there’s enough change going on in the world that I could not accept another one).

I wanted to bury my head in the sand and avoid this whole virtual class thing, but I knew I needed to at least look into it.

So, I started calling my friends who were already doing what I thought was impossible — teaching improv online. Kevin Reome, who teaches at Second City, spent over an hour on the phone going over his lesson plan with me, and reassuring me that doing improv online was actually fun.

Then a couple of days later, Noah Gregoropoulos e-mailed me asking me if I would like to improv on Zoom with another old friend of mine, David Koechner.

Noah was going to teach his improv class online for DePaul University and wanted to get comfortable with the technology and record some scenes to show his class. Then Thursday at 5 p.m., Noah, Dave and I all met on Zoom.

It was a reunion — an unexpected benefit from the virus. The three of us go way back to late ’80s in Chicago, where we did lots of shows together, drank too much together and hung around in coffee shops eating omelets and burnt toast after we drank too much together. We were young and arrogant, and for someone who never went away to college, this was my college and Dave and Noah were my fraternity brothers. I loved them.

The three of us met on Zoom and Dave and I did a couple of scenes.

It was like a Zoom time-machine for us. It took me back to the first time I had meet Dave and worked with him in one of Del’s classes above a Swedish restaurant on Belmont Ave. The first day we met, we played two guys looking at the sun. I cannot remember the details of the scene, except that it was magical, and we both got laughs after each line, and more importantly, Del’s approval.

In the session with Noah, Dave and I did a scene where he played an artist and I was security guard at the art gallery. Even over this video conferencing where there is slight delay, our chemistry and rhythm was back. We had to listen a little harder, which is not a bad thing for an improviser. When I saw the quality of work that can be done on Zoom, I thought, “I can do this! It will not replace doing live shows or live classes, but it’s great alternative right now.” It made me excited.

On Monday, I taught my first online improv class to a group of very experienced improvisers, and I was impressed at how agile they were with the technology and how quickly they were able to adapt to the new medium. Their scene work was outstanding.

When the class ended, a couple people mentioned that they had been skeptical, too, but were really pleased with how it went. And one person said, “I even forgot about what is going on in the world.”

Even in our isolation, we need connection. We need distraction. We need to express ourselves even more than we usually do to reduce our stress and calm our fears. I cannot speak for my class, but I know that is what doing improv online did for me.

Today, more than ever, I have gratitude for the long-lasting friendships I have made in the improv and can say that up until now I have taken them for granted. Maybe that is one of the gifts we will get from this whole paramedic situation — new priorities of what is really important. But, just like predicting when the virus will end, it’s too early to tell.

Stay tuned and thanks for reading this blog.

Are you a storyteller who wants to make your stories even funnier? Don’t miss Jimmy’s Virtual Storytelling Workshop on April 18! Sign up today!

Giving Improv Notes: How to Self-Coach Your Team

Last week, I talked about how to give good improv notes if you are an improv coach or director. This week, I’m going to give some tips on how to give improv notes to your own teammates — a much trickier proposition.

First, let me say, if you are part of an improv group and you aren’t using an improv coach because you don’t want to spend the money or you think you are “beyond” having a coach, stop reading right now and go get one. You’ll thank me later.

However, if you are part of a group of improvisers who can’t get an improv coach – maybe because your group is made up of the most experienced people in your community – then you are in the unfortunate situation of having to coach yourselves. This can be really tricky, because you don’t want to be too critical of your own teammates, but it can be done.

In fact, I have been on many self-coached teams and groups over the years. Here’s what has worked for me.

1. Use “I” statements
The number one thing you want to avoid when you’re coaching yourselves is blame, whether you’re blaming the group or an individual. Sometimes it’s ok to blame the audience, but do it sparingly. Instead, get in the habit of commenting on what you did or did not do well in the show. You can say things like, “I was totally lost in the opening,” or “I really liked the scene I did with Jenny, it was so much fun.” It seems small, but it’s important because you are sharing your experience, which is all you ever have to share, rather than telling someone else what they did wrong. You may think its a small thing, but it will set you up for the next step.

2. Own Your Part
My experience with working with people who have been improvising a long time is they don’t want to call out other people’s behavior or give other performers notes. That means it’s up to each individual to be honest, vulnerable and take responsibility for their moves. This will give other people in the group permission to do the same. For example, you might say something like, “When you came into the scene, I was confused about whether you were doing a call back or not from the beginning.” By you admitting that you were confused, you may get them to admit that they were confused, too.

3. Ask the Group Questions
Remember, the goal is to learn from each other, not tell each other what to do. That is how you get better. One thing I do to learn from other members is to ask them questions. For example, you might say, “What could I have done to make it clearer that I was doing a call back?” Or you could say, “I thought the opening seemed flat. What did you guys feel?” If you get a lot of heads nodding, you could say, “How could we have done differently for the next time?” I have always found this helpful.

4. Don’t Dominate the Discussion
Just like you don’t want to be in every scene in an long form improv show, you also don’t want to be dominating the notes session. If you realize you are dominating, then maybe you’d secretly like to direct. Be aware that if you hijack the notes session, others may be less inclined to be involved in the discussion. If you find that happening, stop and ask them what they thought, or just take a break and let some else lead. Not everyone is going to want to participate and that is fine. Your job is provide some room every now and then so other people can.

5. Bring in your sense of humor
Just like the improv show, make the notes session fun. When I played with Carl and The Passions at iO Chicago, with TJ Jagodowski, Noah Gregoropoulos, Bill Boehler, Shad Kunkle, Jordan Klepper, Katie Rich, and Paul Grondy, I sometimes had a better time in the notes session than I did during the show because weren’t taking what we did on stage or ourselves too seriously. I cannot express how crucial this is, because sometimes improvisers want to make their improv life and death, and it’s not.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? Sign up for his next Art of Slow Comedy: Advanced Ensemble Class, starting April 15! The class runs on Wednesdays from 6-8 p.m. and includes a performance on the last day. Register today!