So You Wanna Improvise. Now What?

A coworker approached me and said he was thinking about getting into improv.  “Where should I start?” he asked.

There’s no perfect answer to that question, but I recommend the following…

1) See shows.

If you’re in Chicago, you can throw a rock and hit a good improv show in progress.  Other cities aren’t so lucky.  But chances are, there’s a theater in your town that does some form of improvisation.  Go to the various theaters and take in as much as you can.  In Chicago, the style of play and the form may be wildly different from night to night at any given theater.

The idea is to find something that speaks to you.  Maybe you want to play slow, like “TJ & Dave.”  Maybe the up-tempo game style of ComedySportz appeals to you.  Maybe you like the polish of a Second City show.  Or maybe you love the unhinged, uncensored madness you’ll see at The Annoyance.  Chances are, the theater you enjoy most has a training program that will lead you down the right road.

For the most part, improvisers are incredibly friendly.  If you see a show you love, ask your favorite performer how he/she got started.  Ask for a recommendation of a training center.  You’ll discover more of the scene when you get involved.

2) Take classes.

In my experience, each theater in Chicago has its pros and cons.  Start with the one that addresses your greatest love or greatest weakness.

Second City I started here.  Most people do.  Second City has tons of classes, all taught by very reputable performers.  The program is very polished.  If your interest runs toward writing, performing or directing, Second City has a program for you.

Second City treats improv as a writing tool.  I went through the beginning program and the Conservatory.  Doing so allows periodic opportunities to put on shows for an audience.  The Conservatory program essentially teaches you how the theater comes up with its polished shows.  By the end of your time there, you’ll get a multi-week run, so you have an opportunity to try scenes over and over.  It’s an interesting challenge.

Second City also offers a very comprehensive curriculum.  I remember spending entire classes on topics like energy, entrances and exits, music and blackouts.  Another benefit of the Conservatory program is that you usually stick with the same group for a year or more.

The biggest downside of my Second City experience came immediately after graduation.  Now what?  You’re cut loose.  Sure, you can audition or propose shows at their smaller theaters.  But no one will mentor you unless you pay them.  It can feel a bit like a diploma mill.

iO This theater believes improvisation can be an artform unto itself.  As you go through the program, there’s a big focus on support.  Make your partner look good and you’ll look good.

The teachers here are usually less tenured than Second City, but all are current performers.  It’s nice to be able to see your teacher take the stage.

At the end of your iO experience, you also get a run of shows.  In the final level, your class creates two unique improv forms.  During your shows, you perform those original forms.  Again, everything here is completely improvised.

For me, iO’s biggest selling point is also its biggest weakness.  At the end of your training, there is a chance you can be put on a team that performs regularly on iO’s stages.  Stage time is crucial for you to become a better performer.  iO offers more of it than most other theaters.

The problem is, as you near the end of your training, people start freaking out about whether they’re going to make a team or not.  That turns them into awful performers.  Gossip spreads.  Scrutiny seems to lurk every time you step on stage.

But hey, if you make a team, that’s awesome!  I love playing at iO and consider it my home theater.

On a personal level, I came out of the iO training center hyper-focused on support.  I was so focused on my scene partner, I often brought nothing to the stage.  Blind support is great, but you need to bring a dish to the improv potluck. That’s where our next theater comes in.

The Annoyance This theater’s mission is to create scripted material.  Though the focus of the training is on improvisation, the Annoyance tends to choose scripted shows to put on the stage.

On the whole, this theater has the best teachers I’ve met.  The Annoyance is a little like the Wild West.  Students in these classes tend to be really weird, even for improvisers.

But the amazing saving grace of the Annoyance program is that it will turn you into a bulletproof performing machine.  What you may be doing may be absolute crap, but you’ll be happy with it.  The Annoyance preaches performer empowerment.  If your scene sucks, you should look at yourself first.  Did you have fun?  Did you make a choice?  Were you powerful?  That’s what the Annoyance wants for you.

I feel like I did my best improvisation after training with them.  It should be noted, however, that I was nine years into my improv career when I wrapped up classes at the Annoyance.  Had I done them first, I don’t know that I would have felt that way.

Performing at the Annoyance is not guaranteed at the end of your training.  The theater tends to be a tight-knit community, so getting on stage usually comes by virtue of knowing someone already on the inside.

ComedySportz Read Ian’s comment below since he’s actually taken classes here.

I speak largely out of ignorance, since I haven’t taken ComedySportz classes.  My understanding is that the curriculum focuses on short form improv games – the kinds of things you’d see on “Whose Line is it Anyway?”  You do have the opportunity to audition to join their ensemble and… (drumroll please)… they pay you if you perform there.

The ComedySportz style focuses on speed and wit.  It’s rare you’re going to see a grounded scene here, though it’s not impossible.

So far as I know, those are the only training centers in Chicago.  Seeing a show at any of these theaters will give you an idea of what you’ll learn in those classes.

Nearly all of these theaters also offer “electives” – a class you’ll take for one or two days, focusing on one particular discipline.

3.) Perform!

This is the most important part of becoming an improviser.  You must perform.  Take every opportunity to do so.

If you’re just beginning, check out improv “jams” at theaters throughout the city.  They’re usually cheap/free and you’ll get a chance to play with more established performers.  In Chicago, The Mixer at The Playground is a great way to get your feet wet.

Once you’ve taken a few classes, consider starting up an independent team.  Many perform at bars and smaller venues around the city.  Look at this as much-needed batting practice.  If you have an idea for a show, consider hitting up the Upstairs Gallery.  It’s an awesome performance venue where Chicago performers swing for the fences.  (All the shows are free, but you should donate to keep the flame alive.)

4.) Audition.

As you continue to perform, it’s time to get involved.  Look for audition opportunities and get out there.  Expect to suck at first.  I still suck at auditions.  But eventually, you can break in with a group and get some “legit” performances under your belt.

Some theaters that don’t have training centers do have resident performing groups (pH, The Playground and CiC come to mind).  You only get better by improvising, so do it a lot.

See shows, take classes, perform, audition.  Do that over and over again.  And don’t stop.

Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

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One response to “So You Wanna Improvise. Now What?

  1. I took some classes at ComedySportz Chicago in 2010, so perhaps I can shed some light on their training program. Granted, it’s been two years, so I wouldn’t know if things have changed, but here’s my memory of it.

    One of the instructors described their program as training people to become ComedySportz players. It does mainly focus on short form games, though some of the exercises we did in class seemed to be based on long form, like doing a series of scenes and having people on the sidelines editing. The Level 2 class focused on scenework, so we did talk about grounding a scene and creating characters that relate to each other.

    I wouldn’t necessarily say they focus on speed and wit either, at least if I understand what you mean by that. In my first Level 1 class the instructor told us not to try to be funny, which I wasn’t expecting. They talked a lot about being true to our characters and allowing things to develop naturally in a scene. It’s possible different instructors there do things differently, but the ones I had didn’t encourage people to go for the joke. There were some games we played that didn’t really involve scenework, so in those cases speed and wit might have been more what they were looking for, but in actual scenes they wanted us to focus on the basics.

    I’ve never taken improv classes anywhere else, so I can’t offer any comparisons to other schools, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time at CSz, and I would’ve continued if money hadn’t become an issue. I’d recommend it to anybody who was interested.

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