I was teaching the Maydays Drop in class recently and two of the students who are recent converts to improv and now completely obsessed with the form (you know who you are you two!) cornered me afterwards and asked me,
“How do we get to be good?!”
I gave them my best answer but came away thinking about it; How does one get good at improv? (barr experience and time) and here’s what I came up with.
Heather’s top 10 tips for how to be a better improviser
1. Do a lot – There can be no denying that experience is everything. I’m not saying new improvisers can’t be good but everyone experiences those wobble moments on stage and the more you do, the more you learn how to navigate your way out of them. Consistently the best show I’ve ever seen is the Armando in Chicago. Almost every player is 40 plus and the weight of experience is palpable. The audience knows they’re going to have a great time because they know they’re in safe hands. I think improvising is a bit like muscle memory in dance training so I’m sure the act of practising as much as you can helps you improve faster.
2. See a lot – Go and see as many shows as you can. Good and Bad. When you’re doing bad improv, you don’t necessarily know it. When you’re watching it, you do. Seeing those sticky moments from the outside is massively helpful in identifying how you can improve your own practice. Watching good improv is equally helpful, thrilling and inspiring. Like Katy and Rach say – like watching people fly.
3. Get a director – I absolutely believe that no matter how much improv you do, you’ll never get significantly better without someone kicking your arse. Without feedback you’re likely to keep the same bad habits all your improv life. A good director should identify your strengths and develop your weaknesses, like being a human top trump. Maybe your speed (let’s call that object work in this scenario) is 100 but your stamina (character work) is only 40. Your director should be working to get everything to 100.
4. Improvise with the same people a lot – Group mind is invaluable in improv. When there is trust on stage you can do magical things. A crude example of this is being physical. Us English lot aren’t very good at getting in each other’s personal space so when you’re working with a group you know really well it’s easier to do things like make people fly, become one being, play an intimate love or sex scene. It shouldn’t matter if you’re with strangers but it really helps when there’s an unspoken level of communication between your whole troupe.
5. Improvise with different people a lot – Equally, it’s great to get out of your comfort zone and improvise with people whose behaviour patterns you don’t know. Maybe you’re the dominant player in your troupe – go to an open workshop and maybe you’ll be forced into the role of supporter or any other role you don’t normally fall into.
6. Be authentic – Whole heartedly bring your life into your improv. There are two ways of doing this practically. One is to see the world as a scene, if someone calls out “Butcher” – don’t be generic, be your local Butcher Stan or a guy you were standing next to at the bus stop that day. Notice everything, use the real language of whichever profession you’re portraying in that show, do some research. “5 things a _____ would say” is a great game for this and you can play it on your own. Alternatively – experiment with putting yourself into the scene, if you’re feeling scared bring it into your character. If you’re feeling randy – hump everyone! It’s great to be imaginative but if you can start from a place of being real it can add a whole new level to your performance.
7. Learn stagecraft – I know some amazing amazing improvisers who are not so hot when it comes to improvising on a stage for an audience. Get an outside eye or take an acting class if you need to. If people can’t see you, people can’t hear you or your stage pictures look dull and sloppy, it doesn’t matter how good your scene idea was or how naturally hilarious you are.
8. Serve the scene and not yourself – Speaks for itself. Don’t plough into scenes or bulldoze other people. Make it your mission to make everyone else look good and you’ll look good. As Charna Halpern says “ Treat others as if they are geniuses, artists and poets and they will be.”
9. Read some improv books or blogs and talk about it exhaustively and obsessively – Well it can’t hurt.
10.Have a secret – This is my favourite thing to do. Pick something just for you to take into a scene, that no-one needs to know about. Have happy hands, be a lizard if a lizard was a human, decide to always stay 2 feet away from whoever you’re onstage with. Whatever you do, bring something to the table. It might never come out, it might get toned down and you should always be prepared to drop it if there’s a cross initiation but aswell as adding some depth – it’s fun!
Heather Urquhart and Joe Samuel have over 15 years experience performing, teaching and writing about Musical Improv. Based in the UK they have facilitated workshops and graced stages around the world.