Three things I’ve learned over the past year in improv
With special thanks to Don Fanelli and Chris Gethard
1. There is no “correct” method (except your own)
I’ve been studying improv continuously since the Fall of 2007 when I had my 101 class with Betsy Stover at the UCB. I worked my way up through the 500 levels where, through no fault of the school’s, I started to feel stuck. Off the advice of a friend, I starting taking classes at the Magnet in January of 2010 and, off the advice of the same friend, I also took a summer intensive at the William Esper studio (where I got a crucially good dose of acting training). Then, off the advice of the SAME friend (Thanks Don!), I’ve also been taking classes with Beck Drysdale, where I’ve really come to appreciate the idea of “there is no correct method except your own.” Note: I have yet to take classes at the PIT so please forgive my current ignorance on their methods!
People wanting to get into improv often ask “What is the best school?” and the answer is ALL of them! UCB teaches game based improv which is good because knowing how to play game keeps your scenes from wandering all over the place and losing steam. The Magnet teaches a more multi-faceted approach that includes game, character and relationship based improv. This is also good because having believable characters and relationships grounds your scenes and makes them more believable and funny.
However, both approaches have their drawbacks: Just focusing on game can become problematic when scenes devolve into a clever (or more often not so clever) repartee between two talking heads who have no basis in reality. Likewise, just focusing on character and relationships without a strong game can lead to meandering and painful scenes that drag on with no purpose and no laughs. Therefore, I feel the best improv combines all of these elements: characters and relationships are strong and believable and there is a solid game or games that keep the scene interesting.
Ultimately however, a particular improv school’s curriculum will only take you so far. Each individual needs to find where their strengths on the improv spectrum lie and play to them, regardless of what a school tells you to do. If you excel at game, for example, play to that strength, but don’t neglect character or relationships (and vice versa). If you watch the best improvisers perform, you will notice that none of them play “the right way” as far as a particular school is concerned - Anthony Antamaniuk plays very differently from Louis Kornfeld, for example, but both are amazing players and neither of their styles can be defined by any one particular methodology. They both took the fundamental elements from their training and then added their own personal twist on it - a process that took many years, but more on that later. The point is to never limit yourself. If you feel stuck doing things a particular way, remember that no one approach to improv is gospel; there are many other options out there and you will always benefit from having more knowledge and more tools in your toolbelt.
2. There are no wrong moves
We all think of ourselves as the greatest and truest judge of comedy. When our scene partners make moves that seem contrary to our ideas of what we believe is correct and/or funny we may find ourselves judging them, judging the scene, and generally taking ourselves out of the picture and looking down on it/them. This is not a cool thing to do. First of all, by judging our scene partner, we are negating them - a cardinal sin in improv and something that hardly ever leads to good scenework. A good improviser never judges a move by a scene partner; they always accept it and move forward to the best of their ability, no matter how “bad” it might be.
One of my favorite scenes I’ve ever been in came about because a scene partner introduced another character as “Grandpa Business Man.” Instead of negating this offer by saying, “That’s not his name” which was my first thought, I instead responded with great gravity and seriousness with something to the effect of, “Of course, Grandpa Business Man, we meet again,” to which the audience exploded. They loved the acknowledgement of something so absurd with such a serious acknowledgement, but even more importantly, they loved the fact that I agreed with my scene partner instead of negating them - which they were probably not expecting. As one of my favorite teachers Ed Herbstman said (I’m paraphrasing), “Genuine laughter is the result of surprise, people laugh when you defy their expectations.”
Let’s face it, there is a lot of shitty improv out there. So often you see shows where players negate each other and/or argue for five minutes over some banal triviality, that it is truly a delight to see a show that’s genuinely fun and enjoyable. What I’ve found across the board when I’ve seen good shows is always agreement and playfulness: When people screw up or make the “wrong” move, their scene partners roll right along with it and incorporate it into the pattern and the audience is glad to be along for the ride. When people negate, ignore, or fight their scene partners’ ideas, the audience starts checking their watches. In short, if we treat our scene partners and their ideas with respect, we will surprise and gain the respect of the audience (and our scene partners).
3. (Perfect) practice makes perfect
Becoming a good improviser takes a LONG TIME. Curtis Gwinn, one of my favorite improvisers, told me it took him seven years of doing improv before he felt like he was putting out consistent work. Kevin Hines, another improviser I greatly admire, took something like eight years to get on a house team permanently. The vast majority of excellent improvisers today have somewhere in the realm of five to ten plus years of performance experience. This should not be a discouraging statistic and, as a matter of fact, should be highly encouraging; particularly for those of us who haven’t been chosen to be on a house team yet (Oh baby this is gonna be my year or not!). The competition is indeed fierce out there but it’s really not about the competition at all. It’s about you. It’s about how much you practice - but even more importantly, it’s about HOW you practice.
I took a workshop with Ian Roberts this past summer where he stressed the idea that it’s not simply practice that makes perfect, but PERFECT practice that makes perfect. He went on to explain that just logging time on stage does not make a good improviser. You have to be aware of the work you are putting out and what you should be doing to improve it. For example, if you have a bad habit of forgetting character’s names (something I do all the time) you, and your coach, should be consciously noting your incremental progress in that regard. You and your coach should also be able to step back a month later and see how well you are improving and why. The main idea being that you are ACTIVE and conscious in your training as opposed to being PASSIVE and simply showing up.
If you are not aware of your faults or you choose not to address them, you will never progress as an improviser, no matter how much time you spend on stage. Perfect practice is the difference between people who have been around for five years and are excellent vs. people who have just been around for five years. Again, it all comes down to you and what you are willing to put into the work. You should be performing as much as you can, you should be taking classes with people you admire as much as you can (and/or asking people you admire who you should take classes with), and you should be watching shows as much as you can (both good and bad) - all with the idea of perfect practice.
One final note I want to make is that it’s very important to realize that everyone learns at their own pace. From what I’ve heard (and from my own personal experience) it takes about three years before you have your first big breakthrough. Then, according to improv lore (and I think Will Hines?), you have another big breakthrough at about the five year mark or so. Your results may vary - in fact, you might be one of these crazy prodigy freak of nature types that gets on a house team right out of the gate! If so, congrats you weirdo! If not, don’t worry. Chris Gethard, another of my favorite teachers, told me that the prodigy phenomenon is far from normal and when people do get on house teams seemingly out of nowhere they, more often than not, have several years of legit performance experience outside of the New York improv scene.
Regardless, if you truly are in this for long haul then the correct amount of time it takes for you to become excellent is just that: the amount of time that it takes. Don’t worry if you aren’t on a house team yet, don’t worry about your friends or people younger than you getting on house teams before you, don’t worry about who’s on what commercial or TV show now. Literally none of that stuff matters in the greater scheme of things and focusing on it will only cause you needless anxiety. A much better direction for your focus is on the work itself, engaging in perfect practice, and generally doing everything in your power to improve yourself. If you are doing that, then be comforted in the knowledge that it may take you five years, it may take you ten years, but you will be successful - and you will have earned it.