Sunday, January 13, 2008

Third in a series: Teachers

Back to my list of demands.

But first, a follow up on Improv Thunderdome. Let me just say “Dah. Yum.”

Every single seat was full. (OK, except the one behind the pole.) The teams were pumped. Jared and Ed’s energy was great—and they kept the show right on the edge of out-of-control until the very end. All three teams did well—but Loaded Dice was the inarguable winner.

Their set was tight and the form was built on their strengths. They cut playfully and aggressively, took care of each other at every step and didn’t let anything slip. To use words I learned from Jill Bernard, they “listened like thieves.” Every line, every cutaway, every reaction fed their characters and relationships. They didn’t miss a beat.

Yeah. Spite needs to start rehearsing. Like, now.

So on to teachers. I believe the teacher’s role is to improve your practice of the art of improvisation. Whether the class focuses on basic skills, opening your eyes to new techniques or helping you grow as a performer, teachers are there to make your work stronger.

Here’s what I hope for when I sign up for a class…except…wait. I think you take worshops (one-shots) and classes (extended sessions) for different reasons:

Introductory/teaser workshops: The big training centers have specific philosophies—e.g. (to oversimplify) say “yes, and” (iO), take care of yourself first (Annoyance), make your partner look good (Second City). When instructors from these centers teach three-hour sessions at festivals (sometimes called Master Classes), the goal is often to communicate the philosophy. You don’t get a ton of stage time—the exercises are designed expose students to different ways of approaching the work. These are great for beginners, or when you’re new to a theory.

Technique workshops: These are the toolbox sessions—you might go to learn BassProv’s Power Improv or Jill Bernard’s VAPAPO. You’ll probably get more feedback on how you’re executing the technique than on your personal performance skills or style. These are the most common workshops taught at festivals, and they’re great for every level of improviser.

Classes/intensive workshops: At more advanced levels, after the teacher has gotten to know you or in workshops designed for personal feedback, you’ll get critiques of your work. The director might point out your habits or crutches. You’ll get specific tools and tricks based on your individual needs. They’re most helpful when you’ve been playing for a while; until you’re familiar with basic techniques and comfortable with improv principles, personal feedback won’t do much good.

That’s my experience, anyway.

NOW here’s what I love in a teacher:
  • Flexibility: Teach from a flow chart, not a list. Be ready to adapt to what the class needs in the moment. 
  • Honesty: It isn’t Sunday school—you don’t have to tell me my finger painting is pretty. I’m there to learn.
  • Solutions: If an important point isn’t getting through, come at it from a different direction. 
  • Confidence: Be in charge. Keep things moving. Know you have something to offer, and believe in what you’re saying. (Also: If the class has one of those annoying students who wants to talk as much as the instructor, shut him or her down.)
  • Excitement: Love the work. Love teaching. Love the students. Leave your bitter, burned out, cynical self at home.
And here’s what makes me feel like I wasted my money:
  • More talking about the work than doing the work. This happens when the instructor loves to hear him- or herself talk…and in partner- or group-taught workshops where every instructor wants to weigh in on every scene…and when the instructor is trying to solve too many problems at the same time. 
  • “You know what would have been funny?” Nothing makes me want to carve my eye out with a spork more than an instructor who tells me what he would have done in the scene I just finished. I say “he” because I’ve never had a female instructor do this. It’s usually young, overconfident guys who want to make sure their students know they’re funny. OK—I believe you. Now shut the hell up. 
  • Too-full classes. Unless it’s a Master Class, you’re not going to get any kind of productive stage time in a three-hour workshop with 30 people in it. 
  • Overpromising and underdelivering. If you say it’s an advanced class, don’t just teach basics. If you say there will be personal feedback, make sure students get time to not only show where they are, but try the new tricks you teach them. If you promise breakthrough techniques, don't teach exercises I've done a gazillion times.
La la la. 

Did I mention Thunderdome kicked ass? It did.

1 comment:

  1. I am looking forward to going to my first workshops and classes. It's going to rock. Now if only I knew when that was going to be....

    Oh, and I'm totally nervous for February's Thunderdome, but too excited to care. :-D

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