Last month I was at DSI Comedy Theatre in beautiful Chapel Hill, NC, teaching three workshop and doing a live recording of Improv Nerd. At the end of the first day of workshops, we got into a lengthy discussion about the issues of “stage hogs” in improv classes and in shows. You know, those improvisers who jump into every scene in either in class, rehearsals or shows. They don’t seem to have a clue how frustrating they are to work with.
The more we talked about this subject, it was clear we did not have a solution as to what to do when you have a stage hog in your class. So I decided to reach out to some teachers across the country whom I respect and posed the question: “What should you do if there is a stage hog in your class?”
It was great to get so many different views on this. I hope you find their answers as helpful as I did.
Will Hines, teacher at The UCB in Los Angeles said:
Stage hogs! Such fun. It’s hard to deal with if you’re a student in the improv class. It’s easiest for the teacher (coach) to deal with. BUT if the teacher doesn’t seem to be noticing, or for whatever reason isn’t doing anything about it, then your best move is to learn how to make scenes work with these people.
You’ll be tempted to just stay on the back line and punish them by staying away from their scenes. Get in scenes with them. Let them drive and you just confirm and re-state and react. It’s frustrating because in a way it’ll feel like you’re letting them get away with it. But just remember that you are making yourself more powerful. Stay low-status, because stage hogs are usually unable to go low status. React to everything they say (you might not be given room to do much else).
Also, play as hard with them as they are with you. If you’re tagged out by a stage hog, tag right back in as soon as possible. Just keep saying yes to the facts. Stage hogs may also call you out. “What? You’re doing THIS?!??! That’s CRAZY!” Just agree that it’s crazy and justify/explain your actions in a funny way. Stage hogs do eventually go away as they are fundamentally NOT GOOD!
Here’s what Rick Andrews, instructor at Magnet Theater in New York said:
Ideally, if someone is stage hogging in a rehearsal or improv class, that’s where a good coach or instructor can step in and level the playing field in a kind, non-harsh way. But sometimes that doesn’t happen or there’s no coach; it’s a tricky situation! It’s no fun to feel like your ideas aren’t being heard. However, if we become so focused on the person we feel is “doing it wrong”– even if we’re right in our assessment — we now become critical and judgmental as an improviser, which isn’t going to lead to better or more fun work.
I think in those situations, all you can really control is yourself. Focus on simple supportive moves you can make to the scene or show. Or make clear, simple choices at the start of the scene; if the person changes the focus of the scene, we can often play both ideas rather than abandoning one of them. If you start a scene with “I feel so itchy today,” and the other person says, “Who cares! We gotta bake these pies before the bake sale!” You can be both itchy and baking pies.
If you’re feeling consistently shut down by someone, don’t be afraid to ask the coach or instructor about it. They might have a helpful POV or be able to offer more specific advice for playing with someone.
Jill Bernard from Huge Theater in Minneapolis said:
Those of us who are stage hogs do so for two reasons: 1.) We are just so excited to be there and/or 2.) We really want to help. We think we’re rescuing you from the HUGE GULF OF SILENCE AND INACTION THAT THREATENS TO KILL US ALL!!! Of course, in reality, that “huge gulf of silence” was a millisecond in length and threatened no one because silence is not a bad thing.
Let’s talk about what to do about stage hogging immediately and also long-term. Immediately: Find it funny and ‘yes and’ them, make their choice the right choice now.
Long-term: This is not something for the other students to fix. Please speak to your coach/director/teacher about it privately during break or after improv class. There are lots of good repair exercises and little rules. “Let’s make sure everyone’s been in a scene before you are in a second one,” is something a coach can say to a steamroller (but not to a mouse who will interpret it to mean they should hide in the shadows counting their teammates). You may also want to end your warm-up series with something meditative and calming so that we enter the stage with less desperation.
Billy Merrit of The UCB in Los Angeles says:
The first thing that pops into my mind with stage hogs is to tell your teacher or coach what’s going on.
Do not handle it yourself, or complain about it to others on your team. This can spark judgment and backbiting, and once that starts on a team it’s hard to pull it back. Your coach has to be that filter.
The second thought that pops into my mind is: “Why?” Why is the player being a stage hog? Is the person jumping out all the time because they don’t trust others with the scene work? Is the person jumping out because they can’t control their excitement of playing? Do you think they’re a stage hog because you’re stuck on the sides coming up with an idea and they beat you to it?
Simply labeling someone a “stage hog” doesn’t label the problem. It places blame. Blaming slows everything down.
Bill Binder, teacher at The Torch Theatre in Phoenix suggests:
It’s not a perfect solution, but most of the time the stage hogs I come across don’t care so much about being physically onstage as they care about feeling important. I spend a lot of time in the early levels focusing on the huge importance and impact of being on the sides; that everyone in the ensemble is contributing to the scene, not just those on the stage; that wisdom in not entering a scene can be a honed skill.
Praising good editing and good offstage etiquette makes everyone, including the stage hogs, take pride in their offstage presence. Often enough, the stage hogs can take ownership of that offstage support in a way that satisfies their feeling of contribution.
Jay Sukow formerly of The Second City Training Center in Chicago, now in Los Angeles says:
Stage hogs. Something all improvisors will face at some point. What can you do as a performer to make a stage hog change? Nothing. You can only control the things you do. But you can make the environment a safe place to fail, so that person lets go of the need to control and be in everything; it’s always a control/ego/fear move.
Look to the teacher/director/coach to call that out; that’s their job. If it’s not happening, have one person from your group approach the teacher outside of class and have a one-on-one discussion. Express the concern. In a class setting, there’s not much to do outside of that because everyone is writing a check to be there.
If it’s a team and it’s an ongoing issue (and you’ve already talked with the coach) have one person approach them with love and empathy and ask the person if they’re aware of what they’re doing. If you come at that person with anger or accusations, or if more than one corner that person, it feels like a gang-up. It’ll backfire. Remember, they’re still part of your group and improv is all about the ensemble. Many times, they don’t even know. Also, the others in the group might seem timid, so that’s why that person is making all the moves. Or maybe they were told by another teacher to get out there more. Now, if that stage hog is an asshole and just doesn’t care, then it’s time to ask them to leave the group. One person can derail an ensemble if their ego is out of control.
But remember, most of all, improv is supposed to be FUN.
Have you faced stage hogs in your improv classes? If so, how have you dealt with it? Let us know in the comments below.
Want to study with with Jimmy Carrane? His next Art of Slow Comedy: Level 2 class starts Oct. 28. Get the Early Bird Special if you sign up by Oct. 14.