Guess What? I Love Teaching Improv

I really love teaching improv. There, I said it. I really do.

And nothing reinforces this more than when I talk to other people who are also teaching improv.

In the last week, I have had six (!) lengthy conversations with other improv teachers – David Razowsky, Bill Arnett, Kim Greene Hiller, Pat Finn, Dee Ryan and Justin Franzen.

With Razowsky and Dee in particular, we spent more than two hours discussing all aspects of improv, including the history of Viola Spolin and Second City and more, and the conversation got so deep into the weeds of improv that we could have taught a college-level course on it right there at the restaurant. Austin Tichenor, Dee’s husband, who was also at dinner with us, said later he wished he had his recording equipment to turn it into one of his podcasts.

In all of these conversations, I’ve found that when I am talking to other improv teachers about our experience teaching improv, my voice gets more confident and my body gets more animated. I come to life. I have opinions and share my experience and learn from theirs.

When the conversation is over, I feel a performance high. I am inspired and, dare I sat it, passionate about teaching improv. In fact, I’m more passionate about teaching improv than I am about performing it. I am a weirdo in that way.

This is pretty shocking to me, considering that when I first started doing improv 36 years ago, I was only interested in becoming famous and I had zero interest in becoming a teacher.

It’s hard to articulate what I love about teaching improv so much, but I just do. I love taking a group of people — it doesn’t matter if it’s a group of 40 corporate salespeople or a group of advanced improvisers in a one-day workshop – and helping them create something from nothing.

And more importantly, I love to watch the bond that they form, even though it might only last for a couple of hours.

Improv is something that constantly evolves and changes, and I love that, too. But most of all, I love to keep learning about improv and to keep striving to get better and better at it.

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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.

3 Secrets to Being a Good Improv Teacher

One thing I have learned along the way is if you want to keep what you have learned, you need to give it away on a regular basis. That’s why teaching others how to do improv is such a privilege.

I am grateful to have gotten to study, work and perform with some of the greatest improv teachers of all time. They were both generous and patient with me and with their time. And I am humble enough that most of the time I continue to learn from my students as well.

So, today, I wanted to give you some more improv teaching tips in the hope you can become the best improv teacher ever. (Okay, maybe I might have overreached on that, but it’s just because I am so excited to share this stuff with you. Teaching improv and sharing my experience still makes me very excited about this crazy art form.)

  1. Let Go of the Results and Your Students Will Have Better Results
    As improv teachers, we think we are in the results business. We think it’s our responsibility for our students to “get it,” and if they don’t, we think we have failed as teachers. This is a hard one for me, because I often think my self-worth as a teacher is tied to my students’ progress, which I can tell you is losing proposition for all those involved. The reality is my job is to just share with them what I can, and whether or not they “get it” is not up to me.I wish that every student in my improv class “got it” and thought I was the greatest teacher they ever had, but that’s not realistic. The truth is, some students will put it all together in your class and some will hopefully find it later in another person’s class, but when I can let go of the results and take the pressure off myself to be the perfect teacher, the student somehow start to improve.
  1. The Importance of Warm Up Games
    This is something I learned from one of my improv teachers, Martin DeMaat: Warm-up games are essential. Some improv teachers don’t see the importance of them. They want to cut right too scene work or throw the students right into doing a Harold. Yes, warm up games take time. Yes, they seem silly and not as important as going right into working on scenes or a long form. I can assure you, however, that by playing warm-up games, students can go deeper and be more grounded in their scenes, not to mention take more risks, if they have warmed up.But another important aspect of warm-up games that people don’t seem to talk about is that this is where you can assess the class’s energy for that day. Each day your students will come into class with a totally different energy, and it’s important to adjust your teaching to how they are feeling.

    I remember one time my students came into class all tired and with low energy. Maybe it was the weather or the traffic for some or that they had just had a shitty day at work, but when they began to warm up, they looked like they were zombies. They had brought their day into class, which gave me an opportunity to make an adjustment. I had them walk around the room and talk about their shitty day and how they were feeling. This helped me know where they were at so I didn’t need to take it personally and so I could keep adjusting to the energy. And once they had a chance to speak about how they were feeling, their negative energy seemed to lift.

  1. Keep Good Time Boundaries
    Students want to feel that they are being taken care of, and by starting and ending class on time, you are creating a safe and nurturing environment where people feel protected by boundaries.This is something I’m still working on. I am great at starting the class on time. I used to wait until everyone had arrived to start, and then I realized, why should the people who show up on time be penalized? So now I always start on time, no matter what. Unfortunately, I still run over at the end of class, which I know is not good, but I cannot stop myself. But I know the more I stick to the time boundaries, the more respect and trust the students will have in me.

Want to try a new approach to improv, or experience it for the first time? Sign up for Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class, starting July 12! Use the code SUMMER to get $30 off.

202: Joe Bill

Joe Bill is an international improv teacher and performer. He is a co-founder of the Annoyance Theater and tours with Mark Sutton in Bassprov. He has taught at Second City, The Annoyance and iO Chicago and continues to teach around the world. Jimmy sat down with him in this live episode to talk about The Annoyance, the day he quit stand-up, and his unique psychological approach to improv.

181: Kristy and Jethro Nolen

Kristy and Jethro Nolan are the co-founders of The Arcade Comedy Theater in Pittsburgh. They are incredibly accomplished improvisers and teachers who have performed at iO-Chicago and Boom Chicago in Amsterdam and taught at the Second City. Jimmy talks to then how they met in improv, why they moved from LA to Pittsburgh, and how they have adjusted to teaching improv in a smaller market.

172: Asaf Ronen

Asaf Ronen is the educational director at The Institution Theater in Austin, TX, and author of “Directing Improv.” Asaf has been involved in improv since 1990 and has improvised and taught all over the world. In this episode, which was recorded at The Institution Theater, Jimmy talks to Asaf about growing up as a latch-key kid, why he moved from New York to Austin, and how teaching improv helps with depression.

162: Jen Ellison

Jen Ellison is a director, writer, teacher and performer who is best known for directing The Second City e.t.c.’s 38th revue, “Apes of Wrath.” Jen teaches at The Second City, DePaul University, and Columbia College. In this episode, Jimmy talks to Jen about discovering a passion for directing at a young age, the transition from DePaul’s Theatre School to ComedySportz, and the importance of admitting your mistakes.