Top 15 things I wish I knew when I first started teaching improv

Back in 2010 when I first took over the Orlando Improv Meetup from my friend Michael Bach, I had no idea what I was doing. Just a ton of hubris, a tolerance for pain, and a 3 year break from my last real training.

We were doing improv in the back of a British pub at the time and my weekly lessons consisted of running short form games and clumsily telling people what I would have done differently. How I wish I knew then what I know now.

So, with that in mind, here are the top 15 things that I wish I would have known when I started ‘teaching’ improv.

1. Beware the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Summed up, the Dunning-Kruger Effect dictates that you think you know the most about improv within learning probably the first 20-30% of all improv knowledge, and once you realize that you don’t actually know as much as you think you do, you tend to underestimate your skill until far further down the road.dunning_kruger_graph

Try to realize that you’re not always going to be able to accurately judge how much of an expert you are at a subject or how good you are at something. With this in mind, approach things with a constant sense of humility. Basically, don’t be too sure of yourself. On the other hand, don’t be skeptical to the point of paralysis either.

http://www.skepticblog.org/2013/06/26/the-dunning-kruger-effect/

2. What you want out of it isn’t always what other people want out of it.

CSC_0191Improv is a lot of things to a lot of people, a panacea of sorts for different things that ail people. For me, personally, I want to learn every single ounce and aspect of spontaneous art. Remember, however, that a class isn’t just for people who are seeking out a place to do or learn improv! It’s people who want to just make friends, blow off steam from a job/family life that’s stressful, and for people who just want to get out of the house. Act accordingly and be loving of the folks who are just there to find a safe place to tell all their dick jokes.

3. Acceptance is more important than perfection

Every time that you stop a warmup exercise in the middle to tell someone that they messed up the premise of the game, every time that you stopped an exercise to re-explain the rules, every time you stopped a scene because someone re-named someone else could have been handled better.

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You had in mind one thing that was very incorrect, which was that to do great improv, you had to be perfect. You had to know exactly what/who/where/the game. That’s not it man.

The basis of improv is Yes, And. Accept and build. Accept means accept. Not “accept only that which you find excellent”. Let people ‘mess up’ and build upon that beautiful gift.

4. Haters gonna hate

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As much as it sucks to hear, you’re going to make some mistakes, and that means that you’re going to make some enemies in the process. Eventually you’re going to realize your faults and start fixing them, but the relationships you break in the process might not be mendable.

Go apologize, eat some crow, and then get back to the work. Spending time groveling at the feet of people who have firmly decided what to think of you will do nothing but bring frustration and self-loathing. The work is far more important than you beating yourself up. Get back to the work.

5. Give feedback in a positive light

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Google how to “Sandwich feedback” and then do that. It’s basically this method. 1. Say something you liked about that person’s work, 2. Say something that they could improve upon. 3. Reiterate your previous statement at 1 with added praise.

Generally people want to improve upon their skill sets, but can’t stand to be criticized or corrected in public, even if it’s in good intention. This isn’t a weakness of a person, but rather how we’ve been brought up in this generation. Get over being frustrated by that process and move forward.

6. Don’t date your students

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It makes things messy when it inevitably falls apart. Just don’t do it. It’s bad form.

7. Keep level grinding

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You haven’t learned it all and if you think you have, you’re wrong. I get reaching a plateau or having a dull-drum portion of your journey, but keep in mind that there’s constantly something to discover about improv, teaching, and life in general. Go watch a documentary or do dance or draw or somehow seek out a new experience. Go be a student again at something completely foreign. Do it!

8. Be daring

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Don’t ever forget that part of this experience is following your fears. What’s the format or idea that you feel least comfortable with? Learn it. Teach it. Teach it badly and without the proper experience, but don’t tell the group you’re an ‘expert’. Let them know that your’e on an experiment together that you don’t know the outcome of. They appreciate your candor and ability to bleed like them.

Form a small group of people who are willing to mess around and do the weirdest improv experiments that you can think of with you. Being in the same space with someone who will say ‘yes’ when you want to worship a spider on the ceiling is liberating in the best way. You know they’ll always try any new and crazy idea once.

9. Everyone is mortal.

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People get sick and have to cancel. Venue owners will forget that you’re coming in and double book your space. Folks are going to be all sorts of rude to you with your time and test your patience. Deal with it with grace and flavor. Stay calm under fire and pressure. Remember that the best improvisers have warmed up next to dumpsters for generations and that you’re doing an art form that needs no lights, sound, or stage really. This simplicity and flexibility is the gift of improvised performance. So chill man. You don’t need a PA system.

10. Coach techniques, not choices.

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One of the most frustrating things that someone can hear is how an instructor would have said “this” or done “that”. Personal context and knowledge is the unique gift that each student brings to the stage, and as long as a choice comes from honesty and not fear it’s a valid choice. If you can’t tell if a choice is a honest choice or not, ask a player to explain themselves to you. You’ll soon tell if someone thought “it would be funny” or if “that’s what I would really say” and people will be grateful to learn techniques and concepts rather than an individual’s way of doing comedy.

Also, if you teach choices, you’re stifling the voice of the player you’re teaching and trying to rewrite it with your own. That’s abusive and it ain’t right.

11. Admit your bullshit.

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When you fuck up, apologize sincerely. If you got out of hand, admit it. If you said something hurtful, apologize in front of everyone in the class. When you admit your own fallibility in front of everyone, it levels the playing field and keeps you honest. You’ll get far more respect from people if you’re an earnest fuck up than if you’re a hypocrite.

12. Nobody is gonna buy a t-shirt

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Maybe you and your girlfriend will. Maybe a couple of the other people in the group too, but beyond about 10 shirts you’re going to end up giving the rest away. It’s not a good investment. TRUST ME.

13. You can only push someone’s limits if you have their permission.

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Sometimes people come in with emotional baggage already weighing them down from the day they had. Something is off in their home life or work life. You’re not there to make things harder or worse for them. If someone isn’t responding to coaching the way they normally would, back off a little. Be understanding with people! Everyone has bad days and good days, and how you treat them on their worst days is a real indicator of the kind of coach you are. Understanding just how far you can push your players can be difficult, but sometimes the best strategy is to simply ask ‘Would you like to move on?’ or ‘How are you feeling?’ does the trick.

14. Space is a premium.

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Brick and Mortar buildings are expensive. You don’t want to intrude a bunch of strangers into someone’s house, so constantly keep tabs on the small theaters and bars with backrooms in your area that need people to fill them. Check places out that host art shows/jazz/poetry/stand up nights and fill them in on what improv is (You’d be surprised how many people don’t know yet.) Try and build a rapport with the people holding the keys to the rooms you want to be using. Patronize their establishment when your group is there so that it’s mutually beneficial.

15. You’re not above it.

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The LAST thing anyone wants in a teacher is an air of false superiority and “I don’t have time for this”ness. If you personally are on the peak of the Dunning-Kruger curve, I highly suggest that you check yo’ self before you wreck yo’ self… er… your reputation.

Trust and a good reputation are hard to build and easy to lose, so keep that in mind the next time you tell someone that you’d never play with xyz or do a show the way that pdq did.

Mind your manners.