In this column, Bobby gives advice on starting and running an improv troupe. Nothing can beat getting an experienced coach or teacher in, but not everyone is in a city with a bustling improv scene, and not everyone can afford to bring in an external coach. This advice should help you setting up a troupe and running workshops for your team.
It’s time to run some workshops. These don’t have to be as focused as the below suggests, you can simply run your normal format and enjoy the rehearsal. But if you’re wanting something more focused while, for example, working towards a show or working on specific skills, this should help with that.
Let’s Design a Workshop
Let’s design a workshop on object work. I tend to divide my troupe sessions into three main parts: warmups, exercises, drills.
I like to do physical and mental warmups, and make them specific to what we’re working on. So for this I might do a mental warmup of tossing an invisible stick around the circle. This requires players to keep track of where the stick is, and only gets harder as I introduce more sticks. I then do a physical warmup like I am a Tree. This gets people to physically occupy an object and also tends to be fairly funny.
After that we have exercises, things to help us practice that specific topic without necessarily being performative. For object work this could be things like Temple of Doom which I’m sure is called something else because I can’t link to a description of it. In this game 6 players line up entering the tomb one at a time. Each person dies to a trap in the first room they come across that hasn’t been cleared, and must mime dodging the traps that have been established by previous players. So player 1 dies to a giant pit in room 1, and player 2 jumps the pit but dies to something in room 2. Player 3 avoids both and dies in room 3 etc. For scene work exercises we could have some standard two person scenes but give each player a totem, a small object that informs their character that they must incorporate during the scene.
After that we drill. That is, do whatever your normal format is while trying to incorporate that workshop’s lesson. If you’re a short form troupe, run short form games that help display this skill such as miming games. If you’re a long form troupe like mine, just run the usual format but the side coaching should be focused on object work, in this case.
So there’s a lot of useful information out there on feedback and how to give it (most recently this excellent episode from The Improv Chronicle) and there’s lots of different approaches to feedback. I don’t have the time to write a book on here so I’ll give two quick tips specific to improv feedback:
- Try to highlight the difference between what the characters are saying and what the improviser is saying. Making sure everyone is listening on both levels is the easiest path to great scene work. Easy example: if a character says “the murderer could be ANYONE” and raises their eyebrows suggestively, they’re probably indicating that they are the murderer. Check in with everyone to make sure they were on the same page during the scene.
- Try to avoid talking about what you would have done in a scene that would have been really funny. It’s easy to spot the funny routes a scene could go from outside, and is rarely useful feedback to those in it. The only time I do this is to point out a simpler route for a narrative in a long form piece, because in an improvised narrative you really do need to keep things simple.
I mentioned this in my first article, but it is worth repeating over and over: only one person gives feedback. That doesn’t have to be you all the time, especially if you want to share responsibility for the troupe to allow you a learning space as well. I don’t want to finish a scene and hear feedback from 5 different people each picking apart a smaller piece of my scene work. I will maybe seek feedback from my scene partner as well, and often when coaching I will ask people in the scene how it felt for them, but it stops there. Many improvisers insist this should be an external coach and no one in a troupe should give feedback (see the Chronicle episode linked above) but this column is specifically for people who don’t have that resource.
Just one small thing
There is a caveat here around representation and diversity, and what to do if a member of your troupe wants to say something about a performance. For example, I am a gay cisgendered white male. When I joined an improvised romcom Scriptless in Seattle I had seen a few of their shows and had feedback on their representation of gay relationships: the short version being “if your couple is gay, neither the hurdle of their relationship nor character jokes should be based purely on their sexuality.” This was important to me to say, but it’s not a comment on any one person in the cast, none of them are homophobic. But someone from outside of the “in” group is going to notice when your unconscious bias seeps into your performance.
In the same vein if a member of your troupe mentions that representation of a marginalised group is a little problematic in your troupe, listen to them and work on it. While Stürike Comedy is very queer, we are still a majority cis male troupe and a while back a member wanted us to work on how we play female characters. We spent several workshops looking at just that and emerged the better for it.
Listen to your troupe and act on their concerns.
Allow me to be more specific: Specific Feedback
In his book How to Teach Improvised Comedy, Jason Lewis compares coaching a troupe to coaching a sports team. The book is a great read for anyone in your position, but the best single take away is this: If you are running a workshop on X, all feedback is how people did X.
Doing a workshop on object work? The feedback is about the players’ object work. Doesn’t matter if they forgot ten other things during the scene, never made eye contact and denied the premise. You tell them how well they handled the rubix cube and to be careful about walking off the pier into the sea. From a player’s point of view, they are focusing on improving that skill and sometimes they will forget other things. You need to give the space to work only on that skill. Maybe later in the workshop you can do some more scenes and give more general feedback.
Rinse and Repeat, but maybe not all the time
Remember it’s important to have some workshops that are just fun, and new skills need time to embed. If you’re working on a new format, that also needs workshops where that’s the only thing for the players to worry about.
Coaching is a skill that needs practice, and side coaching (coaching during scenes) is even more difficult. There’s a lot written online, and Jason’s book is a great place to start, but be honest with your troupe about your skill level and what you’re trying to do – you can get feedback on your feedback.
You can find Bobby on Twitter, and his troupe Stürike Comedy on Facebook and Twitter. Feel free to drop him a line with any questions or requests for future articles, or if you’re in Sheffield and want to say hi.