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Being More Positive

For years I thought to get good at improv you, had to get piled on by constructive criticism — what some people call “negative notes.” I was that student who would go up to the teacher after class and beg them to “be tough on me.”

I was tortured that way.

I even took this philosophy into my teaching, sometimes jamming my poor students’ brains with all of the things they were doing wrong. Eighty percent of the time I could see their eyes rolling in the back of their heads. They didn’t respond. They were overloaded by having too many things that they needed to work on.

The other 20% of the time, they would send me long what’s-up-with-the-notes-you-gave-me-last-night emails.

Lately, however, my approach to giving notes has changed. I am not saying I don’t ever give hard notes, especially when I see potential in someone or when I have worked with a student for a long period of time, but overall, I’ve become much more positive in my approach to giving feedback.

My feedback has become more positive because, I am sorry to say, I have become more positive.

Recently, a student that I had in class 20 years ago said that when they had me at Second City I was really hard on their class.

That kind of comment used to be a thing of pride for me. Now when I hear it, I am embarrassed because it’s true, and I regret it.

I think one of reasons for my softer, gentler approach is that I am finally ready for more affirmation in my own life.

I’ve noticed this in my relationship with my crazy therapist. For the last 14 years, I wanted him to constantly point out how I was fucking up (which, by the way, he is great at), because I thought that was the only way I was going to get better. But lately I’ve realized this approach isn’t working for me anymore. Now, I can no longer hide from myself that I want more. More affirmations.  More encouragement.

I was out of whack for all these years, thinking I only needed to hear what I was doing wrong so I could change.

Today, I need both.

As an artist, it’s always been easy for me to go the dark side. But life is not just dark. It also has an underrated light side. Life is a balance. Improv is too. I am just glad that even at my age, I have the willingness to adjust, and it’s actually a lot more fun to teach this way.

Want to try a new approach to your improv? Don’t miss Jimmy’s online Art of Slow Comedy One-Day Workshop, happening May 8. Only 3 spots left! 

What to Do If You Get a Note in Improv Class You Don’t Agree With

Have you ever gotten a note from an improv teacher that you didn’t agree with?

Did it make you feel confused, frustrated or even ashamed, like you had done something wrong? I assure you, you have not.

They say that there are no mistakes in improv. But that doesn’t apply to teachers giving notes.

If you are like me, you’re probably like “No way. The teacher can’t make a mistake. They know a lot more about improv than I do, so whatever he says must be right.”

The teacher may know more about improv than you do, but they don’t know more about you and your creative process. When you go to the doctor, they may be the expert on medicine, but you are the expert on your body, since you are the one in it. The same thing applies with your creative process.

Believe me, as an improv teacher, I wish was correct 100% of the time, but I’m not. After all, improv is a subjective artform, so the feedback and suggestions that I give to my students are just how I see things, but they’re not gospel.

So, if you get a note from a teacher and it doesn’t sit well with you, I encourage you to speak up in the moment about how you feel about the note. I know it’s scary as shit to do that. When I’ve given notes, sometimes students have said, “That put me in my head” or “It shut me down” or “I don’t understand.” This gives the teacher an opportunity to adjust their feedback and you may get a note that actually helps you.

As messy and imperfect as this can be, as a teacher, it gives me more information about that student’s creative process and how to give them even better notes in the future.

I know how hard it is to speak up in the moment, and if you struggle with this, the next best thing you can do is to e-mail your teacher and bring up your concerns at the top of the next class.

And maybe the next time you get a note you don’t agree with, you may even say in your head, “Gee, I don’t think that applies to me,” or “Whatever. My teacher is way off base here,” and not turn your teacher into God.

At the beginning of each new improv class or workshop, I often tell my students that when it comes to notes, take what you like and leave the rest.

As an improv teacher, my goal is to collaborate with my students, so they can find their voice with the help of the class, not only on stage but in their own lives as well.

Want to try a new approach to your improv? Check out Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 classes, now on Wednesday nights or Friday mornings! Sign up by Feb. 3 to save.

5 Things to Avoid in Your Improv Classes

Art of Slow Comedy

I’ve been teaching improv classes for a long time, and over the years, I’ve seen students do the same things over and over again that get in their way. Here are the top 5 things that improvisers should avoid doing in class and suggestions about how you can do it differently.

1. Don’t apologize after a scene or when you’re given a note
A lot of times, when people finish a scene in improv class or get a note from the teacher, they say “sorry.” You don’t need to say this. I should know — I was one of those people who said sorry all the time after a scene or an exercise. I was apologizing for not being perfect. I was apologizing for wasting your time. I was apologizing for existing.

“Sorry” means you did something wrong. I am here to tell you, you did nothing wrong. You are improvising – and that means it’s impossible to make a mistake. I understand you think you made a mistake, but you didn’t. So give yourself a break and stop apologizing for learning.

Suggestion: Next time, substitute the word “thank you” or “oh” for “sorry” and see if you feel differently.

2. Don’t be defensive
This is a hard thing to address because if you’re defensive and you’re reading this, you probably don’t think this applies to you. Boy, do I wish I had a way to get through to you. I have taken improv classes with defensive people, I have taught improv classes with defensive people, and these people would rather be right than learn. Every note from the teacher to the student becomes some sort of justification why the student did this or that. If you find yourself justifying why you did something, rather than just taking the note, you are being defensive. And when you’re defensive, you’re not learning, you’re just surviving.

Suggestion: If you have an inkling that you might be defensive, get help for it outside of class, because you are wasting your time and money taking improv classes, or, to be honest, any kind of classes.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarity when you get a note you don’t understand
I have a friend who’s taking improv classes and he called me up for some advice. He was getting the same note over and over again from different teachers, and he didn’t really understand what they meant. I asked him if he got clarity on the note. “No, I don’t want to be one of those students who takes up all the time during improv classes.” Here’s the thing: If you don’t understand a note, this is the time to be one of those students because it gives the teacher the opportunity to share their experience with you, or better yet, come up with an exercise that can help you. As a teacher, I love these opportunities. It’s exciting, because now the class and the teacher are improvising together, and the chance that we will learn from each other is pretty good.

Suggestion: If you don’t understand a note, ask questions. Be ok with taking up time in your improv classes. It will only help you get more comfortable taking up stage time.

4. Don’t be polite
Most students are super polite and hold back in improv classes, especially in exercises that are quick and designed for the players to go multiply times such as 30-second scene, three-line scenes, etc. These games are designed for you to learn through repetition, and by jumping in as much as you can, you help the group as whole. Don’t be polite and let other people take all the turns. Trust that if you are getting out there too much, the teacher will reign you in. There is old actor/director tip: It’s easier to tell an actor to bring it down if he’s playing it too big than to have an actor who is playing it too small and have him play it bigger.

Suggestion: Keep pushing yourself out there!

5. Don’t hold back, even if you’re feeling insecure
If you feel off or you’re having one of those days where you don’t have any confidence, make sure you don’t hide out in class. Instead, be the first one up. Ryan Archibald once gave me the best piece to advice. I was doing a long-form show at Second City called Summer Rental, and I showed up backstage before the show and told some of the cast members that I felt off. Ryan said: “Make sure you are in the first scene.” Man, he was right. I did a scene with Joe Canale and we nailed it. I think being scared helped me do some of my best work.

Suggestion: Your mind will want to tell you to hide out. Do the opposite and get out there.

Want to take your scene work to the next level? Sign up for Jimmy’s Two-Person Scene Tune-Up on April 14!