Performing improv for an audience is always the best way to learn. But improv class is where you hone your skills. And over the course of your career, you will spend many hours in improv class.
Obviously, you want to get the most out of every learning opportunity. This means value not only for your money but also for your time spent working in class. If you’re in a large group, you may only work a few scenes each session, and be watching others the rest of the time.
Occasionally, you may find yourself in a “bad” improv class. Teachers have a big role in setting a proper tone and adapting their approach to the group. But as students, we should also think about how we show up, and whether we contribute to our own problems.
To get the most from an improv class, here are some thoughts from my 25 years of learning and teaching. I base some of these on my personal frustrations as a student and a teacher. They might be a little controversial. 😉
These tips apply to both in-person and online improv classes.
FYI — I teach advanced workshops in environment, object work, and physicality in performance, among other topics. Check out my personal improv website for information and schedules.
Table of contents
- Be ready to work
- Remember what you’re learning is situational
- Learn from THIS teacher
- Engage with disagreement
- Accept that improv is hard
- Assume nothing (in class)
- Assume everything (in scenes)
- Ask questions (but avoid theoreticals)
- Bring a notebook
- Don’t bring textbooks
- Know the Point of Concentration
- Dive into exercises
- Go first sometimes
- Stop looking at the teacher!
- Comment on other students’ work
- Extra notes for online improv classes
- Give feedback on the class
- Get involved in your own learning
- Share your ideas for learning in improv class
Be ready to work
This one should be obvious. Improv is a team activity, and everyone in a class should be ready to apply themselves to the work. Arriving with energy and focus is the best way to support your fellow students, and for them to support you. If you’re unwell, or can’t muster the energy, it might be better not to go. If you find this happens often, you may need to rethink why you’re taking the class.
Remember what you’re learning is situational
Anything and everything can happen in a scene. There’s no tip, trick, or technique that applies to every situation. There is no One Way to improvise. What you’ve learned in one class may not apply in another.
Learn from THIS teacher
Every instructor’s teaching is a product of their own experience and opinion. What you’re learning in any class is that teacher’s approach. What they say and do won’t always be consistent with what others teach. They may even contradict themselves sometimes. That’s because the situation and context changes with every exercise.
It’s okay to discuss and compare different approaches you’ve learned. But avoid challenging the teacher with statements like “You say to do X, but Keith Johnstone says to do Y,” or “That’s not what they told me in Level C.” Use the class to learn from that instructor. It’s your job to take conflicting ideas and decide for yourself which works best for you.
Engage with disagreement
Sometimes, you’ll work with an instructor who disagrees with your approach. For example, I have a strong physical style. In a workshop once, the teacher immediately stopped me setting up a scene with object work and told me to “Cut out all that mime shit!” I’ve met several other students with similar experiences.
Hopefully, you’ll have teachers who are more professional. But as long as the instructor is respectful, don’t be embarrassed or offended by a difference of opinion. Recognize that it’s just not that teacher’s approach. Try things their way and decide for yourself.
Allow an instructor’s ideas to challenge you. If you disagree, ask yourself why. Is it just that their method is unfamiliar? Are you holding on too tightly to ideas from somewhere else? Can you find anything in there that works for you? Pull what you can out of it and leave the rest.
If you really want to work on your own approach all the time, hire a coach instead of taking a class.
(By the way, it’s unacceptable for an instructor to be disrespectful or abusive to students. Consider reporting this conduct to your theatre company’s administration. If you’ve experienced distress in a workshop, I also provide a list of Emotional Safety resources that may help.)
Accept that improv is hard
It feels so great to finish a scene and have the instructor praise your work. But I think you’ll agree that you learn more from the scenes that don’t go so well. When that happens, don’t get down. Allow yourself the privilege of failure.
A good class should challenge you. If all your scenes are great, maybe you need a more advanced class.
Occasionally, you may have a teacher who is uncomfortable giving criticism. If they’re always being positive, it’s appropriate to nudge them for more corrective notes.
Assume nothing (in class)
However experienced you are, try to enter every class with a “beginner’s mind.” It’s easy to think we “know” the basics like object work, environment skills, etc. But that belief keeps you from hearing the teacher’s perspective. You can miss valuable inquiry into how to make your skills deeper and better.
Assume everything (in scenes)
In any single improv class, you will probably get to do only a few scenes. If the scene never gets off the ground, it’s a waste of your time and energy. It can even keep you from getting to the actual point of an exercise. Actively listen and make decisions. This is not the time for scenes with uncertain characters. Make assumptions about the basic elements of Who, What, Where.
Don’t worry about cliché choices. As Keith Johnstone says, being “obvious” and “average” are the best ways to make scenes happen.
Ask questions (but avoid theoreticals)
Instructors regularly give students a chance to ask questions or comment. Take advantage of this time. Ask questions that drill down on the topic.
However, try to avoid theoretical questions. A common one is “What happens if I’m in a scene and someone does X? What do I do then?” Questions like this are rarely helpful, because the context of a scene influences how you might react. Learning improv is figuring out how to negotiate your own scenes.
Bring a notebook
Don’t worry about looking like a nerd. Improv classes go all over the place, and you need to write notes as they occur to you. You’ll find your teacher’s best ideas come out of specific, one-of-a-kind situations.
Write notes in your own words, as you understand the topic. Copying your instructor exactly could lose the context of why you think it’s important. This can also reinforce the idea that the instructor’s words are “improv gospel.” (They aren’t.)
A notebook is also useful for saving those private questions you don’t want to ask in a group for later.
Write a summary after every class: big ideas, characters/premises you came up with, questions for next time, and other reflections. Make a list of goals and things to try for your next show. Even if you never look at these notes again, the activity bolsters your learning.
Don’t bring textbooks
Unless the instructor is teaching directly from a specific book (maybe their own), avoid bringing other textbooks to class. You’re there to get ideas from that instructor. Your UCB Manual won’t be of any use if they’re teaching an Annoyance style. Carrying a book around can also pigeonhole you in other people’s minds.
Know the Point of Concentration
The “Point of Concentration” is a specific element to focus on in working with a particular skill. Every improv exercise has one.
Sometimes instructors won’t reveal the point of concentration right away. They may want you to discover something for yourself in the moment. But at the end of the exercise you should know the point. If not, ask the instructor to explain.
If you finish an exercise and realize you haven’t focused on the point of concentration, ask to try again. Otherwise, it’s been a waste of your time.
Dive into exercises
When a teacher gives you instructions without the point of concentration, it’s scary. Clarifying questions are sometimes necessary, but try to recognize when you’re hedging out of fear. Take the instructions as they are and make assumptions. If you push the instructor into revealing too much, you miss the chance to make your own discoveries.
Go first sometimes
It happens all the time. The instructor calls, “Two people up!” and no one moves. But improv is about managing fear, and jumping in teaches you to push through your hesitation. Be first to try unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations. A workshop is a safe space to fail.
You can’t do this every time, or you deprive other students of the chance to do the same thing. But at least once per class, commit to going first, especially if you don’t know what will happen. Working with your fear makes it easier to do the same thing in performance.
If jumping in first is a real problem for you, try mentioning it to the teacher. Ask them to pick you to go first sometimes. The social pressure will help get you out of your seat.
And don’t sigh or grimace when you’re called to go next. You might carry that habit into performance, and it looks awful in front of an audience. Go next with enthusiasm!
Stop looking at the teacher!
This is common for brand new improvisers, but I’ve seen experienced players do it too: glancing at the instructor during an exercise to see their reaction. This is safety-seeking behaviour. If it seems the instructor likes what you’re doing, your confidence grows that you’re doing a good job. If not, you try to adjust before you fail completely.
Doing this takes you out of the exercise and away from your scene partner(s). Keep your focus on the point of concentration. Trust that if you’re going off-base, the teacher will side-coach you or stop the scene. If that happens, it’s a learning opportunity. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad improviser.
Johnstone has an exercise to curb this behaviour. Whenever students look at him, he makes them yell “Drop dead, Keith!” or perhaps something even stronger. The student’s desire not to yell at the teacher helps them break the habit of checking in.
Comment on other students’ work
The teacher is not the only person who should comment following an exercise. By participating in discussions, you deepen your understanding of the point of concentration. Avoid giving notes or being critical, but talk about how the scene made you feel, and ask the students questions. Getting them to share their experience helps everyone learn.
Extra notes for online improv classes
- Have patience. Everything takes longer online. Improv exercises and scenes will be slower and take up more of the class time. Expect fewer activities per session than you might in person.
- Try setting up your computer so you can stand for exercises. It will help you use more of your body and keep your energy up.
- Listening skills are even more important online. Talking over your partner is impossible. Slow down and give them even more space.
Give feedback on the class
Most improv companies will ask for feedback on your workshop. Take the time to complete surveys and share your thoughts on the class, anonymously if necessary. Your response helps teachers get better and benefits future students.
Get involved in your own learning
You only get out of an improv class what you’re willing to put into it. Take responsibility for your own learning. Show up ready to learn, comment, and ask questions.
Share your ideas for learning in improv class
Agree or disagree? Have any other thoughts about improv students or teachers? Leave a comment below and let’s discuss!