Dealing with Taboo Topics in Improv Class

Today, many improvisers want to shy away from certain taboo topics.

As artists that is their right, and as a teacher, performer and human being, I try to respect people’s individual boundaries to not do scenes about things they don’t want to talk about.

But as a teacher, I also don’t want you to miss out opportunities to go a little deeper in your work because you are afraid of what other people might think.

I have learned everyone has different boundaries, and that is where it can get a little complicated in improv today.

Some improv teachers today tell their students that they can’t do scenes about certain subjects, such as race or sex.

But I believe it’s important to not make a blanket statement about what people can and can’t talk about in class. Instead, when it comes to taboo topics, I encourage my class to come to a mutual agreement about where their own boundaries are.

If someone gets triggered by something in class, I encourage my students to talk about it so we as a class can find our boundaries together. Occasionally I will have to speak up, too, if I something happens in a scene that makes me uncomfortable.

This happened a couple of months ago. It was clear to me the player who made the comment was not coming from a place of malice, but more from inexperience. So, after the series of scenes was done, we talked about them and had an open and honest discussion about what was said.

This was a very mature and thoughtful group, so my job in this instance was not to lay down the hammer about what you can and cannot say, but instead to let them talk and find out where their boundaries lied.

I know I learned some things, and I could tell the class did, too. By having a discussion rather than imposing a hard and fast rule, we all became more aware.

Thank God for my students, because they are they one’s that have helped me adapt to the changing world of improv. I’ve found younger students are usually more uncomfortable with taboo subjects in class than older students (and older teachers) are, so it’s important that the younger students help guide me on what is appropriate.

What’s important in class is that we not make one person right and another person wrong for what they say. If we come from a place of respect, we can all learn from each other.

Looking for a new approach to improv? (Or want to try improv for the first time?) Don’t miss Jimmy’s next Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class, starting Oct. 31! Save $30 when you sign up by Oct. 17.

Watching My Improv Students Succeed

I used to think the only satisfaction I could get from improv was when I performing it. You know, the attention that being on stage gives you. I thought I could only be happy if I was getting the laughs, the applause and the accolades.

That is how I thought for a long time.

I was a scared and selfish improviser because I was scared and selfish person. It was all about me. All the time.

I am grateful to report that today some of my happiest and proudest moments in improv aren’t coming from my own performing – they’re coming from watching my improv students succeed.

It happened last week. At the end of the Art of Slow Comedy Level 3 class, the students put on a long form performance for their friends and family. It’s nothing fancy. We just set up about 20 chairs in a classroom. We have no stage. No lights. And last week, the form was simple, a montage.

Though the space was casual, the work these students did that night was on a very high level.

I could tell it was going to be a great show almost from the moment the show started, just from the first couple of scenes. The group was confident and poised. Though they were a bit tentative, they were patient and listening, which is always a good sign. The concerns I had about their editing disappeared; it was crisp and gave their set the momentum you need in a successful long from.

Typically, when my improv students put up a show, I am more nervous than they are because as the teacher, I hold all the fear for the group. But this time, I felt really relaxed because I could tell this group was on their way to doing a great show. I could stop worrying and actually enjoy the show because they were in the flow.

You often hear in improv about the individual finding his or her voice on stage, but you very rarely hear about the group finding its voice. That night, their voice emerged as group. They started almost every scene realistically and grounded, and if it happened to go absurd, they aggressively supported the game.

And the best part was no one was giving up his or her unique voice in the process. Instead, they were blending their voices together as if they were singing different harmonies to the same song.

To say I was proud was an understatement. That night I had as much of a performance high as if I had improvised right along with them. Though the show was over by 8:15 p.m., I was so excited I couldn’t fall asleep until 1 a.m.

That night was special for me. I certainly attribute it to my age. And therapy. And my loving wife Lauren. And being a parent, because my daughter, Betsy, gets me to see wonder and joy in life though her eyes, just like I must have experienced when I was a kid. Just like my students got me to see the wonder and the joy of improv through their eyes, the same wonder and joy I must have felt when I was starting out, too.

For that, I am grateful, and it makes me feel that teaching improv is one of the most gratifying things to do in the world.

Always wanted to study with Jimmy but never had the time? Sign up for one of his three Art of Slow Comedy Summer Intensives. Only $229 if you register by June 30!

Why I Love Teaching Improv

A weird thing has happened to me in the last couple of years. I had realized that I like teaching improv far more than I like improvising. It seems when I am up on stage improvising, I still put a lot of pressure on myself, something I don’t do often when I’m teaching it.

In fact, there is nowhere I feel more comfortable than in a classroom or at a corporate training teaching improv. Teaching is in my wheel house, and it’s something I have become really good at. I have secret, just between us: I don’t just like teaching improv; I love it. I love it a lot.

I love bringing people together who don’t really know each other that well and creating an ensemble where they feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable, and then be brave enough to use it in their work. This ensemble may exist only for a short period of time — a couple of hours or several months — but out of it comes some memorable scenes, and sometimes, even friendships.

I love helping people find their voice on stage as well as off stage. Nothing makes me happier than to see a shy, timid student start to make bold choices on stage or when that same student starts to speak up in the class and share his opinions or ask a lot more questions. And it gives me joy to see a more experienced student step up to become a leader.

I love watching burned out improvisers who have been through the improv ringer or who have stopped doing it for a couple years get excited and inspired about improv all over again.

I love seeing the invisible student, so quiet you forget they are even there, start to get out there on stage more, become louder and take up more space.

I love those students who come into my class bouncing off the walls with energy and talking at light speed learn to slow down and play it real and start to share a part of themselves with us without even realizing it.

I love seeing students constantly surprise me, showing me characters or taking risks I have never seen before.

I love to see them go on and find a theater where they get on a team or get cast in a show or create their own groups or shows. I especially love when students want to become teachers themselves.

I know I have said this before, but when I started out in back in ’80s, if you dared to say you wanted to be an improv teacher or director, people thought you were giving up on your dreams. We all wanted to be performers. We all wanted to be famous.

Well, I am finally brave enough to admit that while I would still like to be famous, being an improv teacher is one of the most rewarding life decisions I have ever made.

Jimmy Carrane would LOVE to work with you! Sign up for his Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class, starting July 12.
Or sign up for one of his three Art of Slow Comedy Summer Intensives happening this summer. Early Bird Deadline for the class is June 28 and for the first summer intensive is June 24! 

Why I Still Do Improv

What still excites me about improv after all these years? I get this question a lot. And the answer may surprise you. It is the teaching. I love teaching. I love teaching improv even more than doing shows or the podcast Improv Nerd.

And this will blow your mind coming from Mr. Self-Hatred and Self-Loather himself, I am great at it. In fact, I am a terrific improv teacher and I keep getting better. I have put more time and energy into becoming a better improv teacher than becoming a better performer, which is how I have become so incredible at it. (Now even I am getting uncomfortable). I think the fact that I can admit that I think I’m good at it is quite an accomplishment. Let’s move on.

There are so many things I love about teaching improv, but one of the biggest ones is being able to create a sense of community for people. I love taking a group of strangers — it doesn’t matter if it’s a three-hour, one-day workshop in Omaha or a six-week class in Chicago — and creating a place where students feel safe taking risks, being vulnerable and making lots of mistakes. At the end, the students will say they feel “bonded” or “really close to one another.” That is community. And that is the thing that brings me so much pride and joy as an improv teacher.

I cannot think of a better gift to give people than a sense of belonging. You cannot have group mind without it. You cannot build trust without it. Support does not exist without it. Having a sense of community is what attracted me to this crazy art form in the first place as lost teenager more than 30 years ago, and it’s why it’s so hard to leave. Community is the number one reason improvisers do improv in the first place and they are not even aware of it. Why else would you choose an art form that relies on other people?

The biggest compliment you can give me besides “You are the best improv teacher” is to tell me that you made friends in my classes and workshops and you stay in touch with them.

In the years since I started doing improv, I have seen it grow up from being a local thing that was unique to Chicago to a global thing that’s done across the world. But despite how widespread improv has become, the thing that’s as still true today as it was when I started out is that everyone is striving for that sense of acceptance and that feeling of belonging.

I know as read this, you might have been kicked off a Harold team or never made one or auditioned for shows and never got cast and you feel that you never became part of the community that you wanted. But the beautiful thing about the size of improv today is that people are creating their own communities. Smaller sub-communities. Musical improv is its own community, and inside that community are even more sub-communities.

Nothing makes me more proud than when my students create their own shows or start their own groups or find a theater that they call home. And I can’t think of anything better than if they start coaching and teaching and take what they have learned from me to bring even more people that sense of community around the world.