Improvisation classes: Tips from the experts

Improvisation Classes: Using good techniques to avoid bad reviews.

Improvisation classes are popping up everywhere nowadays and the participants are from extraordinarily diverse sectors of society.  Many improv schools have their own flavour of improvisation techniques and styles so choosing which class to attend can be tricky.  One of the most important factors is having a good relationship with your improv teacher and trusting them to set up the right atmosphere within the group.  We caught up with three of the most active and experienced improv teachers in the business to find out what improvisation techniques they use and how they create just the right conditions for improvisation to flourish.

Meet The Experts

1. What has teaching improvisation classes taught you?

Tom: To be invested in my students’ learning and to be willing to learn from them in turn.

Steve: To listen. That you don’t have to teach everything all at once, just one thing at a time. That people flourish in a safe and supportive environment. That people are more similar than we think.

Katy:  Everything. Teaching has accelerated my learning of improv. Through trial and error I can see what works and what doesn’t work pretty quickly and create games and systems to help people cut to the good stuff. The downside is that with a lot of teaching it’s sometimes hard to get out of your head when you are playing in a show. Mick Napier said that writing his first book ruined his improv for about 6 months!

Improvisation Techniques

Improvisation Techniques

2. What specific improvisation techniques do you use in your classes?

Tom: The answer to that question could fill a book (this one) but briefly…
  • Creating a safe space to experiment. The workshop must be a lab where we can all learn from the failures, not an audition where some succeed and progress, and others fall by the wayside and are culled.
  • Creating a strong theoretical framework but not making anything a permanent “rule” (except possibly “give your partner a good time”)
  • Trying everything out, multiple times, so that theory becomes practice
  • A mix of working in pairs and working in front of the group, sometimes heavily side-coaching, sometimes letting scenes run-on.
  • An emphasis on narrative, an emphasis on spontaneity, and an awareness that these two can sometimes seem to be in conflict.
  • Having fun and being playful. If it starts feeling like hard work for the students, I generally switch to something else.

Steve: Loads!

  • We focus on skills like listening, agreement and support, yes and, commitment, characters, story and scenes.
  • We alternate between pair groups with people playing with impro away from an audience, and group games on stage with support, so people gradually get used to improvising in front of an audience.
  • The first games that come to mind, and ones I probably use the most, include word at a time story, story conductor, the ad game, machine, volcano, three line scenes, yes and, yes let’s, objects from a box, one voice. That’s probably what I’d teach in someone’s first ever improv workshop.
Katy: It depends entirely on who is in the room and what they want. Also there’s a difference between teaching, coaching and directing.
  • In a regular class I’d normally start with a few warm-ups that get the brain ready (i.e. Mind Meld), something physical (like Kick the Can) and something that gets people enjoying failure (like Big Booty) and being silly. Then I’d have a goal in mind for the class and pick exercises that support that goal. At any point I’m ready to go off on a tangent if there is something better suited to the students in the room or we get excited about some other aspect of an exercise.

3. What do you look for in an improv teacher?

Tom: It’s been a very long time since I was the student and longer still since I was the student for more than a single one-off class, but I guess I would look for:
  • Someone who could teach me something new
  • A clear vision for what they were trying to achieve,
  • Celebration for the work of all the students
  • Clear feedback. (As opposed to: not able to express any clear goal for the work, but heavily critical of those who aren’t able to realise this unspecified vision. I have met this teacher, more than once.)

Steve:

  • Must be an experienced performer, I only hire people who also perform.
  • Friendly.
  • Supportive.
  • More about the fun of improv.
  • Makes the class about their students and not about themselves.
  • Can explain exercises quickly and succinctly, so the class is less chat and more improv.
  • Good listener.
  • Caring.
  • Punctual and easy to work with.
  • Doesn’t take it too seriously
Katy: If I’m going to be taught by someone, I expect them to be better than me, or to have a set of skills that I don’t have or am not as good at.  A good improv teacher will support you in failing, so that you can push yourself. – KS
Improvisation Classes

Maydays Improvisation Classes

4. What is the best review you could imagine for your improvisation classes?

Tom: ‘Made me feel more talented than when I entered.’
Steve: ‘This is the best place to go if you are new to improv’. ‘I was a total beginner and I had a great time.’ ‘The class was really fun and friendly and I had such a laugh, thank you!’
Katy: Maria Peters said she could spot my students by how fearless they were and how much they threw themselves in even when they didn’t have anything. That makes me happy. I want to have people trust one-another so much that they’ll make big, bold moves and know they’ll be supported

5. What is the worst review you could imagine for your improvisation classes?

Tom: ‘Made me feel less talented than when I entered.’
Steve: ‘Oh my gosh that was so scary I hated it!’
Katy: ‘I preferred [any other teacher]’.

 A Bit about our Experts:

Tom Salinsky co-founded The Spontaneity Shop in 1997. It is a London-based improvisation company which includes a thriving workshop programme, regular performances now also including plays and stand-up comedy shows, and a corporate training arm

Katy Schutte is one of the UK’s top improvised comedy teachers and performers.  She trained at Second City and iO Chicago, as well as with teachers from the Annoyance, UCB and more.

Steve Roe is the co-founder of Hoopla and has been teaching & performing improv for nine years.

He teaches improvisation full-time in London, and tours workshops around the UK and Europe.

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