5 Biggest Mistakes Improvisers Make Online

In the last year that I have been teaching improv online, I have gotten to work with improvisers from all over the country and at various skill levels. And regardless of their experience, I have seen the students in my classes and workshops make the same mistakes over and over again. And I’ve also seen that once most of my students realize what they are doing, they improve at a very rapid rate.

Here are the five most common mistakes I’ve seen improvisers make this year.

  1. Not Saying One Line at a Time
    It doesn’t matter if I am teaching in person or online, not improvising a line or two at time has been the number one problem most of my students have had for the last 20 years. When you give too much information to your scene partner too fast, it can cause your scene partner to experience information overload. This is especially true online because it’s harder to hear what people are saying and you may experience technical difficulties.The amazing thing is that when I tell improvisers to work one or two lines at time, it’s like it’s the first time they are hearing it, and they adjust beautifully and improve quickly.

    Great online improv scenes happen the same away they do on stage — when players say one or two lines at time. Less is more in this medium, and if you can condense what you are trying to say to one or two lines, you will have a better chance of doing great virtual improv scenes. That’s because the more concentrated your lines are, the more they will affect your scene partner.

  2. Not Adding Pauses
    I have seen improvisers drop bombshell information on their scene partner like, “I never loved you,” or “I cheated on you with your sister,” and then ruin the scene by continuing to speak. When you reveal a big, juicy piece of information, shut the fuck up until your scene partner responds. Remember, you surprised your scene partner with your information, so now it’s your turn to be surprised by their reaction. Breathe, count to ten, think about what you are going to have for dinner. Do whatever you have to do, but wait until they respond before continuing to talk.
  1. Creating Unnecessary Conflict
    The third mistake I see improvisers make a lot is adding unnecessary conflict. Often times, a scene will be going along very nicely and then all of a sudden out of nowhere a player will introduce a fabricated conflict because they thought that’s what the scene needed. You don’t need to add conflict because usually, tension is already baked into every scene.  It doesn’t matter if you are agreeing with everything your partner is doing in the scene or you’re just following them, there is always tension present.Some students tell me they create conflict because they “want to do it right” or they felt the scene was going too smoothly. I get it. It’s hard to trust things when we feel like we aren’t working hard enough. Not all scenes, or classes or shows will be easy. Sometimes we have to fail to get better and we all can agree that is not easy. But usually, when you are having fun and things seem easy and you’re getting laughs along the way, you are in the zone. The trick is to relax and not talk yourself out of it.
  1. Sweating the Small Stuff
    Please, please, please when a scene has a simple transaction in it, unless it’s part of your character’s point of view, get it over as quickly as possible. Students want to get bogged down in details. If you are pretending to be in Starbucks and the barista says your chai skim latte is $6, find a way to pay for it and move on to focus on the relationship, or your characters’ past history, or your want, or the game in the scene — anything but negotiating of the price of freaking coffee.
  2. Not Making More Positive Choices
    One thing I have consistently seen is improvisers constantly making negative or argumentative choices. I often see improvisers start a scene in an argumentative tone by blaming their partner for doing something, which makes it tough for that scene to go anywhere. I’ve also seen a lot of improvisers get stuck in a rut by playing grumpy or annoyed characters who never like what is offered by their partner. There is a simple fix for both of these issues: Make positive choices. If you are being proposed to in a scene, be excited. If you are having a baby in a scene, be excited. By adding a little love, you will see big results.Want to delve deeper into your character work? Don’t miss Jimmy’s next Two-Person Scene Tune-Up, happening April 10. Only 3 spots available. Sign up today!

7 Tips for Teaching Improv Over Zoom

As more and more people are doing improv over Zoom, we are all starting to adapt to this new medium and find ways to make it work for improvisers.

In the past few months, I’ve published a few blogs about how to make your improv pop on Zoom and how to host an improv show over Zoom. But today, I wanted to talk about some things that can help you be a better teacher over Zoom.

Although I miss being in-person with my students, I have found that Zoom has actually made me a better improv teacher in some ways because it has forced me to be more present and positive than I usually am.

Here are 7 things you can do to be a better improv teacher over Zoom:

  1. Lower Your Expectations
    One of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn about teaching improv over Zoom has been to lower my expectations about what it’s going to be like. No, teaching on Zoom is not the same as teaching in person, and it never will be. But is it a good substitution? Yes.There certainly are limits to teaching improv over Zoom. You will not be able to do some of the same exercises you did in class, your editing can be clunky, you don’t have the same emotional connection you have when you are all in the same room. I could go on and on. But once I stopped comparing the two and accepted that this is what we have to work with right now, I could go forward. If you can’t get past this one, the other tips will be worthless.Even with the limits of teaching improv over Zoom, I have seen powerful work in my online classes. I did a workshop recently where the improvisers did one of the most powerful and profound pieces of improv that I’ve ever seen. It was about racism and it nearly brought me to tears. It was handled so intelligently and acted so skillfully, it was a work of art.
  2. Stand Up While You Are Teaching
    When I first started teaching online, Marcus Sams of Moment Improv in San Francisco gave me some advice to stand up while I am teaching. He said it helps with your energy and will help you be more presents, and he was right. It only took me about four months to start doing it on a regular basis, but it has made such a big difference that now I sometimes get the same buzz that I did when I taught in person.
  3. Have Your Students Stand Up
    If it works for you, why wouldn’t it work for them? In improv, it’s so important to get your students out of their heads and into their bodies, and the only way to do that is through physicality. Encouraging your students to stand up for part of the class and doing even the smallest physical movement makes a huge difference. Also, for certain scenes, I will ask them to stand.
  4. Improv Games and Exercises Will Take Longer
    When I first started teaching on Zoom, I realized that I was only getting through half of the games and exercises that I normally teach in an in-person class. As I taught more, I realized that things just move slower on Zoom. Again, just accept that this is part of the deal and try to adjust to it, rather than getting frustrated.
  5. It’s Exhausting
    If you’re going to teach improv over Zoom, be prepared that when it’s over your brain is going to feel fried. Why? It takes a lot more concentration to teach online so your brain is going to be on overdrive, and when class is over, you are going to crash. That may mean that you won’t have as much energy to teach as many classes as you did before, or it could mean that you just need to schedule in a break for yourself after class.
  6. You Have to Supply More Energy to the Class
    Another reason that you may feel a bit drained by teaching on Zoom is that, unlike in an in-person class, you as the teach are more responsible for the energy of the class. In an in-person class, there is usually a point where the energy of the group takes over. But since the students are not in the same place, creating that group energy can be harder over Zoom. To keep the energy up, I’ve found it helpful to occasionally do bits, and I’ve also become more aware of the pace of the class and more of a cheerleader at times.
  7. Encourage Students to Keep Their Cameras Off, But Sound On
    When doing two-person scenes, I have the improvisers in the scene keep their cameras on while everyone else turns their cameras off. However, I encourage everyone to keep their mics on so we can hear some laughter. My classes usually have about 10 students, and I’ve found that if even one person laughs, it can make a big difference, just like real audience feedback.

If you have tips on teaching improv over Zoom, please included them in the comments below!

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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!