Thoughts for people who want to start teaching improvisation

I got contacted recently by someone looking to run an improvisation course and looking for a few tips. I thought my reply could be useful for a general audience, so here it is.

I was asked about syllabus and general advice. I’ll come to syllabus at the end because it’s a tricky one to answer, so I’ll lead with the more practical things, written with a beginners course in mind: a couple of tips on preparation, a couple on how to run content, and a few more on how to engage with those participating.

Plan a variety of activities, such as

–¬†whole group
– small groups (eg 3-4) in parallel
– pairs in parallel
– solo/pairs/groups in serial, with the remainder watching

Often start with group activities and then use a blend of the rest, not spending too long in one type. If possible, warm-ups are in service to the topic at hand, but it’s never a wrong move to build connection, attention or energy.

Prepare a few more exercises than you need
Sometimes things don’t go quite as you expect, or for practical reasons prove undesirable (a running game when two people turn up with foot injuries). Sometimes things get done really quickly – there was a lesson you thought everyone needed to learn but they already knew it. So it’s always nice to have a few backup exercises in the bandolier. However, bear in mind you should…

Run fewer exercises than you think
This took me a long time to learn! As workshop leader, we often get fixated on working through our Agenda, and we’re so buzzing with ideas and activities that we miss that there can be a lot of pleasure and learning that comes out of an exercise repeated. There is no rule for how many you should do, but often, aside from warm-ups/energisers, two to four exercises (maybe with variants or add-ons) can be enough. Even in beginner workshops which are heavier on the warm-ups, if the group is really into a game you can stick with it for a while. Even 30 minutes or more if it is helping the group coalesce. You can always tweak the game a bit, which brings us to

Be open to tweaking on the fly
As a teacher you are also improvising, so always be prepared to pause an exercise and suggest something to improve it, from the more obvious “let’s do that again but with four times the commitment” to the seemingly arbitrary “let’s keep passing the ball but continually shift from sitting to standing.” Trust your intuition in the same way as you are asking your students to. Sometimes students themselves will suggest tweaks; teachers differ on how to handle this but personally I’m open to trying these out, while making it clear that the responsibility for the workshop remains with me. Speaking of students,

Allow participation
Allow time for students to reflect aloud on their experiences of doing exercises. When things are allowed to be spoken it helps us to really know what we are thinking and feeling, and sharing these insights with others helps them to understand things better. Also encourage students to ask questions, to check understanding or to voice doubts or uncertainties they have. As the leader of the group you may need to restrict this kind of dialogue when it risks turning the workshop into a talking shop, but it’s important the opportunity is there. You can plan check-in points in your teaching plan, but also be alert to what’s needed. After all

You’re mainly a listener
Again, impro basics, but again it’s true. What’s the energy like at the start of the day? How are people responding to high-energy stuff? How about now? Is everyone integrated or have things shifted into a few sub-groups? Are those two people just a bit anxious or ‘have a reassuring word with them in the break’ anxious? Could we do with a break now? How do people feel when they pair up with that energetic person with the massive voice? Drinking everything in with every sense you’ve got. You don’t have to get this stuff right! You just need to care about it. And active listening includes asking a question and getting the answer. And be prepared to act, because

You’re also a leader
Make the calls that need to be made: if you think an exercise must be abandoned, abandon it. If you don’t like content in a scene, call it short and say why. Take responsibility for the atmosphere and make sure people feel safe. I strongly recommend taking time at the start of the course to set out expectations for how people treat each other in the class. It doesn’t need to be a fully scoped code of conduct but you should let people know that respect and comfort are key to the work you are doing together. You can also ask participants to contribute to these expectations.

I haven’t said too much about personal style. There are almost as many effective ways of teaching as there are types of people. Some teachers are preternaturally calm, others cheer at every opportunity; some stay seated, others gravitate into the scenes they are coaching; some reassure whereas others tease. Be decent, be encouraging, be fair, and be you.

Now, syllabus. This is a general question that is impossible to provide a general answer: it depends on the particulars, on your philosophy and the style of improvisation you want to seed. Many people in the UK began by learning shortform games, but I know many schools that don’t. Some people might consider open-ended group performances to be advanced-level stuff, but when Randy Dixon taught the organic Harold, I asked him whether he could see teaching beginners with that form, and he could. I very often use masks in introduction courses, which to others might seem too niche an area to call on.

If I was to give any explicit advice it would be to make sure that the early weeks focus on connection, getting to know each other, positivity, finding fun in mistakes, and the simple joy of playing games together. Other topics that I might focus on would be status, letting go of control, staying in the moment, mime/space and playing different types of things, story structure, emotional reactions, truthfulness, the idea of ‘platforms’, more complex games with restrictions. But most of all, unpack the vision that you care passionately about in improvisation.

 

 

An image of ten improvisers posing in garish t-shirts
My continuing group in Germany last year – we had a cheesy t-shirt theme to the final class, an idea I stole from iO’s Todd Edwards. Any gimmicks you’ve found useful to beginners?

 

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