School of Fish

During my time with the iO Chicago Harold team Whiskey Rebellion, I had the great fortune of being coached by Bill Cochran of Cook County Social Club.  Bill had a saying about how he wanted us to approach group work.

“Be a school of fish,” he said.

By that, he meant that when the group functions as one body, we gain a power we can’t achieve as individuals.  Let this clip from Finding Nemo illustrate this further.

All the tiny fish come together to make big shapes.  With sketch or improv comedy, acting in unison allows the same power.  It’s rare in real life to see a group of people behaving identically.  When we see it heightened in scenework, it is a shortcut to comedy.

Though I’m not sure it’s true anymore, group work used to be Chicago’s great, unique strength.  When attending festivals around the country, my impression of New York and Los Angeles improvisers is that many of them are seeking the spotlight individually, much to the detriment of their scene partners and team.  But Chicago teams stood out by their willingness to fall into line to support a single idea.

The interesting part of being a part of a school of fish is that after jumping on to the initial idea, the leader tends to shift.  There is safety in numbers, and when the entire team is executing an idea, the group may be more willing to take a chance than when taking the stage as individuals.

When I had him as a coach, Adal Rifai liked a team warm-up called “Welcome to (Blank) Mountain.”  It begins with any player jumping out and filling in the blank, saying, for example, “Welcome to Pirate Mountain.”  That player uses his body to make the shape of a mountain.  From then on, each other member of the team  uses their body to join the mountain, adding another attribute, like, “Here is the river of blood!” and, “Here is the eye patch fashion depot!”  As soon as all members have “built” that particular mountain, the entire team says, in unison, “Welcome to Pirate Mountain!”  The exercise begins anew with another player establishing another mountain theme.

Improvisation is a collaborative art.  While we often see moments of great individual brilliance, the artform truly reaches its potential when the performers create something unique and wonderful from thin air, summoning the collective acting abilities of the entire group.  It’s something amazing to behold.

Ask yourself if your team plays as individuals or as a group.  If you rarely find your teammates jumping out to help create the stage picture or support your ideas nonverbally, ask your coach to help you work on functioning as a school of fish.  Audiences can’t get enough of it.

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


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