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!

5 Tips for Improvising Online

This month will mark 10 months that we have been improvising online. Can you believe it? Though improvising online will never replace the thrill of improvising in front of a live audience, I have to say it’s a pretty good substitute.

During this time, I have gotten to work with students from all over the world who have taught me a lot. And John Hildreth and I have continued to do our monthly Jimmy and Johnnie show, and we have gotten to perform with improvisers from cities across the country who have also taught me a lot.

So I wanted to share with you some things I have learned over the past 10 months that have helped me and my students become even better online improvisers.

  1. Slow Down
    There’s never been a better time to slow your improv down than on Zoom. Playing with a lot of energy and moving quickly in that tiny frame is hard for the audience to watch and even harder for your scene partner to follow. Slowing down your improv will give you a better chance to read your partner’s face and connect with them on a deeper emotional level. It also looks more natural, since Zoom is a medium that is more close to film and TV than stage.
  2. Say One Line at a Time
    When you’re improvising online, giving too much information to your scene partner too fast can cause your scene partner to experience information overload. 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.

    And once you deliver your line, PAUSE until you partner speaks. This will prevent people talking over each other and give your scene partner the space to emotionally react to what you just said. If you are having difficult doing this, a good exercise to start with is “One Word Dialogue Scenes,” which is helpful in teaching students that they can communicate a lot in one word.

  3. Use Your Frame and Space Creatively
    The more you can use your frame and how you are position yourself in it, the more you can change the tone and the environment of your scene. I had students position their cameras so it looked like they were lying in a bed, and it set up a rather sexy tone in the scene. I also had two students do they most brilliant thing of walking in space. How you position yourself physically can say a lot about your character. Experiment and have fun.
  4. Suggestion Tip
    Online improv is less nuanced then in-person improv, so it’s better to keep things simple when you are doing long form. One tip I have used with classes that seems to work is to tell the players that they can do anything with the suggestion they suggestion that they get, except that they can’t say the word. So, if the suggestion is “eggs,” the players can never say “eggs” in the piece. It’s so simple, it works.
  5. When Technology Fails, Incorporate That Into Your Scene
    When technology fails — and trust me, it will — incorporate that into your scene. I have seen my students gracefully take these mishaps and weave them into improv gold, resulting in big laughs.

    When a player’s screen freezes, justify it. I had a student who was doing a scene where that happened and her character took it personally and called out the other character for stopping speaking. If you or your scene partner forgets to unmute at the top of scene, call it out in character, because we all saw it. If someone pops on screen accidentally and then pops off, you need to mention it, since we saw it, too. It’s not only fun, but it also has the potential to deliver some of the biggest laughs.