Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Teaching improv to the masses

So every year since—well, it's been a long time—I've gone to the Kansas State Thespian Conference to teach improv to dozens and dozens and dozens of high school theater kids.

It's exhausting.

As it turns out, most of the drama kids who show up for improv classes are doing it because it's fun. It's almost impossible to tell if it's the high-end fun, like "improv makes me feel great and alive and full of joy," or the lesser fun, like "this is a blow-off class and we're just going to mess around." The state board gives the kids tickets that limit the number of improv classes they can take, and's hard to tell if it's because improv is so awesome the other classes don't have a chance, or because they don't want their kids to waste the whole weekend playing rehearsal games.

Maybe it's a little of both. 

Anyway, I've managed to exempt my classes from the ticket system by teaching levels. Level 1: character work, level 2: scene work and level 3: long-form. I'll teach each of the first two twice and the long-form class once. (Max, the teacher who got me into this whole thing, has been amazing about letting me change up the classes as the years have gone by. There are also more people teaching improv, so I've been able to get more specific about what I'm teaching.)

The question: Have I sucked out all the fun? (Look! The word "work" is in both of the first two classes.) It's easy to see what's popular: Warm-up and guessing games. (Heck, the Exit 16 kids I'm so snotty about would play Red Light/Green Light and Hug-Tag for 90 minutes if I'd let them.) Kids want to be funny. Kids want to crack their friends up. I get 60 kids in a room, all hoping I'll give them a chance to laugh for 90 minutes straight.

So trust me when I say I've second-guessed my improv snob approach to teaching. 

I could have 60 kids in every class all weekend long. Instead, I'll get 40 in the first round...20 in the second...and maaaaaybe a dozen by level 3. I could help 300 kids do a slightly better job of playing Beastie Rap or Party Quirks. Instead, I'm hoping that 12 kids will play every game better and push themselves harder because they know how good it feels to do a killer scene. 

We'll see how this goes. 


  1. There have been times when I drew tremendous satisfaction because I knew that I nailed a scene. It was all harmony - the scene work, the character work, and even the game play. I think the game play gets overlooked often in short form. You can do a killer scene and people will howl with laughter or ooh and ahh with delight, but something will still feel off if it wasn't executed properly within the parameters of the game.

    Build a strong scene. Create an interesting character. Know how to play the game.

  2. I personally think one of the most difficult things to do is teach improv to kids.

    First thing i would probably do is size up the kids in each class. If they look like goof-offs, i'd treat them like goof-offs. Dangerous Minds is an awful movie and not very believable.


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