Jimmy Carrane and Jay Sukow

Why I Became an Improv Teacher

As improv has gotten bigger over the years, more and more people have become improv teachers. What once was just a hobby for a handful of people has become an actual profession for hundreds of people around the country.

So this week, I started thinking… what made me become an improv teacher in the first place? And why do I keep doing it after all of these years?

To help me, I asked Jay Sukow, a former improv teacher at Second City who has recently started teaching his own improv classes in Los Angeles, to give me his thoughts on why he loves teaching improv, as well.

If you’re considering becoming an improv teacher, we hope our answers inspire you to take the leap!

 

Jay Sukow, improv teacher, Los Angeles

The reason I decided to become an improv teacher was two-fold. One reason was Dead Poet’s Society. It tells the story of John Keating, an English teacher who inspires his students through his teaching of poetry. From the first day of class, he tries to get his students to look at life differently. He inspires them. He tells them to rip out pages of their poetry books. He encourages his students to “make your lives extraordinary.” He introduces them to the Latin phrase carpe diem (seize the day). The ending of the film made me cry as the students salute Keating by standing on their desk and calling out “O Captain! My Captain.” I get chills just writing this. He inspired his students. Much like my teachers inspired me.

And it’s not just my teachers who inspired me, it’s also my students who continue to inspire me. When someone’s eyes light up with “I get it!” When someone says to me, “You changed my life.” When the career corporate person quits their job and becomes brave enough to pursue their artistic passion. When the grandmother says, “I play better with my grandchildren because I now say ‘Yes, and…!’” When the performer who’s fallen out of love with improv experiences that thing that reignites their passion and comes back reenergized. When people make lifelong friends, find a soul mate, are just happier in life. When a student becomes a teacher and evangelist and our relationship has evolved into becoming good friends. When students change their lives by starting improv companies, especially ones that give back to charities and communities. When a student who is too scared to open up and be vulnerable, who hides behind cracking jokes, being sarcastic and defensive, changes their actions and opens up to the possibility of what can happen. When the executive vice president of a Fortune 100 global fast food company tells you he uses the improv exercise “Red Ball” to start his weekly meetings. When I’ve affected someone’s life.

Another reason I got into teaching was that I wanted everyone to experience the joy, the magic, the love of improv. To see what we could do instead of feeling the pressure of what I was going to do. To show off your intelligence without fear of being made fun of. In improv, I found my tribe. I felt a part of something bigger than myself. Improv kept my ego in check since I had to leave it at the door. Improv allowed me to play and have fun. Improv has had such a big impact of my life and I wanted to share that with everyone I met. I learned that to hold onto something, to really benefit from it, you have to give it away. Improv is one of the few places where we focus on similarities, not differences. I’ve taught classes made up of such disparate people: 19 year old college students, Vietnam veterans, retired grandparents, career advertising professionals, suburban mothers and husbands, recently divorced. All in one class. And that’s the norm, not the exception. It’s always the case that people who would never had met any other way, who don’t run in similar social circles, get to know each other in a supportive, low-stress environment. Because “Yes, and…!” really means “No judgement” of others, but more importantly, of each other. Make each other look like rock stars. Inspire each other to be great.

Along the way, I’ve learned so much. Benefitted so much. Made lifelong friends. Gotten married and had two wonderful children and a dog. All because of the power of “Yes, and!”

I teach now also because I see a lot of negativity in scenes, a lot of conflict, yelling and anger. A lot of individuality. A lot of desperation to be funny instantly, with every spoken line. A lot of making others the butt of the joke, picking on scene partners, saying “No” to most offerings, even as simple as, “Would you like something to drink?” I want to see that change. To see people play not for laughs. I want people to see every opportunity as a wonderful possibility, to see every mistake as a gift, to help everyone feel the magic I feel. I want people to embrace the unknown, to follow the fear, to create, not destroy.

My classes come with lifetime tech support. (Thank you Dean Evans for that line.) Never forget I got your back. And your front. And all of the wonderful you. Those are the main reasons why I decided to become an improv teacher and coach.

 

Jimmy Carrane, improv teacher, Chicago

I originally started teaching improv and coaching around 1992, and to be totally honest, I did if for the money. Back then, the only people getting paid in improv were the piano players and the teachers/coaches, so naturally, I wanted in on that.

I first looked at teaching like a temp job. I was just doing it to pay the bills until I got my big break (which, as you know, hasn’t happened yet — I am still waiting). At the time, you could make up to $35 for three hours of work coaching a Harold team in someone’s tiny apartment in Wrigleyville, and that was some good extra side money for me while I worked a day job selling office supplies.

I continued to teach on the side for a long time, always hoping that someday I could ditch my day job and focus on improv and acting full time. Then one day, around 2002, I was working at a commercial real estate office and teaching a couple of classes at Second City, and I came up with the idea of teaching my own classes. So, I put up some flyers for my first class, took out an ad for it, and the class filled up quickly. I could not believe it. Of course, I took that as a sign that teaching improv was something I was meant to do, at least for now, and I took the leap to make it my full-time job.

My relationship with teaching improvisation has completely changed over the years, as has my approach to it. Today, I teach improv because I love the process more than anything. I love taking a group of strangers and having them give themselves over to something that is bigger than all of us. By doing this, they start finding their comedic voice and taping into their honest life experience, and improv becomes effortless for them. They begin to trust — the class, the teacher and themselves.

They start feeling like they belong and with that comes a new freedom and new confidence. And regardless of how funny they maybe at this point, they are becoming stage worthy. We start to believe every word that comes out of their mouths and they become better actors without even knowing it. They are entertaining me, and I am a tough audience.

Yes, it seems kind of magical when I put it that way, and it’s hard to believe it really works. Students often can’t believe it either. They’ll come up to me after a class or a workshop and say, “Is it supposed to be that fun and easy?” They seem puzzled by the whole experience. “Yes, yes!” I say. “It is supposed to be this fun and easy.” This is what I am after. This is why I am still teaching for God’s sake!

I also love collaborating with other people, and my students are no exception. When I teach, I don’t come in thinking I know all the answers. Instead, I like to improvise along with the class. For the most part, I don’t plan what I am going to teach. I wait for the class to present what they need to learn that day. It’s exciting to work this way because it forces me to be in the moment with them, much like when you are improvising in front of an audience. I am in the zone, I am listening and responding. Don’t tell anyone, but my students are actually inspiring me.

But the thing I love the most about teaching is creating intimacy with a group of strangers, and out of that comes a sense of community and connection among my students. I will say this: Nothing makes me more proud than when students or improvisers I have taught and directed remain friends after the class or show is over. You wouldn’t believe how happy I feel when I talk to a former student who says something like, “Oh, you know Jerry, Julia and I are still good friends from your class ten years ago.” That is almost as good as when someone says, “You are my favorite improv teacher,” or “I learned the most in your class” or “You are best improviser teacher I have ever had.”

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? There are still a few spots available in his Art of Slow Comedy Level 3 improv class, starting Jan. 6. Sign up today!

4 replies
  1. Karen S.
    Karen S. says:

    I got a random chance to take over teaching a beginner drop-in one day recently and really loved it. I hope to do more in 2016. I learned so much in just those 2 hours and this article is a great inspiration and reminder why it would be so valuable to teach more. Thanks Jimmy.

    Happy New Year!

    K

    Reply
  2. Tom T
    Tom T says:

    Jimmy- as an improv teacher, you are certainly right where you are supposed to be. Your Wednesday night class has been wonderful !One of the best experiences of 2015. I really appreciate the opportunity to learn from you and everyone in the class. I’m looking forward to the start of the next class in 2016.

    Reply
  3. elly k
    elly k says:

    I love this week’s post because it reminds me the joy that i experienced my first few years of doing improv, when i made the best friends and felt the most confident (and vulnerable) in scenes. Now, about 6 years out, I have struggled to ‘get back into it.’ I find that i am self-conscious and nervous in classes, not so much about the improv as impressing and getting along with my classmates socially. Any advice?

    Reply
  4. John Michalski
    John Michalski says:

    I started teaching in L.A. after studying with Jo Forsberg in Chicago for several years. Classmates: Tim Kazurinsky, George Wendt, Bill Murray and others who went on to be big wheels in Ad Agencies various corporate positions, teachers, law enforcement, big deal tv writers, big deal tv producers … pretty much anything you could think of …. This was the late 60’s … I moved to L.A.in the mid 70’s and played the clubs … joined the Groundlings at the old Oxford Theater with a few of my Improv mates from Chicago.
    While working at the Comedy Store as a doorman/Improvisor, Brandon Tartikov … big time producer who had been in Jo’s classes with me … referred some people to me to see if I would teach them how to Improvise at a temple in Santa Monica. That was my first teaching gig.
    During my Improv adventures in L.A. I met lots of people who were basically working at a lower skill level than I was used to, or players from San Francisco who learned from the Committee, or people from New York who learned from Chicago City Limits. Many of them really knew how to dominate a stage, but relied heavily on joke structure, or structured scenarios designed to work as forms that audience suggestions would plug into … much like the re-prov that Second City Alumni will often pass off as Improvisation. I wanted more freedom in the work. It was hard to find like-minded souls.
    Josephine’s structured scenic work within Viola’s games was my foundation. Scenic Improv didn’t work so well in bars, so we learned how to play a faster joke style as well. My brother Jeff and his group The Comedy Rangers were so good at this that they would work side-by-side with standups on the same bill, often doing better than the standups. There were very few of us that moved easily from format to format. In L.A. players started using me as an unpaid teacher to learn how to integrate the various performance styles. Mostly I moved more into teaching to develop players who could handle the things I liked to do … I was creating my own playmates.
    So, that’s why I got into teaching. To bring people up to a level where I could have playmates that allowed me to perform the work in a ‘flow’ state which I found to be a profoundly spiritual path. I constantly looked for teachers and fellow players that could take me to higher skill levels and more freedom on stage.
    After the Improvisation Institute was well established, Second City recruited me to teach alongside my brother Jeff, Donny DePaulo, Michael Gelman, and others to create the Second City Training Center. I have taught all over the US and for Second City in Chicago and Santa Monica … The Groundlings in Hollywood … The Comedy Store Playhouse in Hollywood … and in theaters and store fronts everywhere.
    I’ve found that people, myself included, don’t quit improvising … they just take a hiatus or two to interact with the rest of the world.

    Reply

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