When I learned improv in New York my teachers followed a hands-off approach. Feedback was minimal and we were encouraged to experiment on our own to find solutions. Advanced levels had coaching but certainly not in levels 1 or 2 and this was the style I used for the first year of teaching improv.
In the second year my style developed into its current form with the help of a particularly engaging student - Lisa. Lisa was highly creative and highly anxious. At first I was hands-off but in week 3 this changed when we played word-association. Word-association is a simple game where we say the first word that comes to mind based off another word. For example, if I say “sky” you might say “blue” or “rain” or “sun.” Three rounds in a row, Lisa hesitated before saying “finger” and it was obvious to me she was avoiding her real word – something sexual.
For the first time, I decided to take an active role in bringing new ideas into the room and said “penis” for my word. For the next THREE rounds she kept saying “finger” and I kept saying “penis” until finally she screams out “PENIS” with a huge smile and a deep breath – releasing her built up tension. She relaxed and from then on was unblocked.
This is hardly a novel approach, in fact it’s characteristic of the “Keith Johnstone” branch of improv but I had thought of my job as more facilitator than guide. From then on I took a more involved approach.
There was a scene where Lisa and her partner found a box in the house. They kept holding it and playing with it but clearly we needed to open the box for the scene to work. After 3 minutes, I gently say “open the box.” She (Lisa was leading this scene) spent 3 MORE minutes looking at it, turning it around until I shout “OPEN THE BOX.” And she says something like, “Ok, ok I’m opening the box… but it’s so nice I don’t want to destroy it.” And the room cracks up. I say “I’m leaving you on stage until you open the box” And after another minute of avoiding she slowly starts to open it, and inside….. there’s ANOTHER BOX.
To this day this is the biggest laugh I’ve seen in my improv career. Comedically this is a good way to end the scene but I continued to push her, gently saying “open this one.” And she opens it and takes out a golden book. I ask her to open it and start reading it, and for the first time in class she’s truly improvising, reading from this fake book.
She was never the same person. Well… she was still quirky and fun and spastic but this moment changed her and it changed me. I started to see myself more as a coach: I was no longer a teacher – I was a trainer. I had an active role to play.
Of course that’s not always the right mindset and it took me a few level 1’s going too far to find the balance I use today. Each class is different and finding the happy-medium between experimentation and guiding is the teacher’s job. Currently I’m more hands-on the first four weeks, almost like training wheels, and then I take them off for weeks 5-8.
One bonus story about Lisa – she is the inspiration for my greatest contribution to improv: “Termite Sex.”
There’s a game we play day one called “five things.” I ask you to name, say five cars, and no matter what we’ll say “yes” after each one. “Mercedes”: “YES!,” “Ford”: “YES!,” “Monkey”: “YES!” etc…. This trains the concept of making an active choice – better to say something and be silly than to wait for the “perfect” idea. In other words – all ideas are perfect.
The same is true for actions in a variant called “five ways.” Show us five ways to fix a bicycle – and the student acts out the five ways on-stage. This can also be adapted to emotions – show us five ways to be in love with your partner. These exercises are great for the end of level 1 to again show us the joy of experimenting and keep us from getting too comfortable on-stage.
The #1 fear of a beginning improviser is to portray sexuality on-stage, including the dreaded “what happens if I have to have sex on-stage?” The answer is “you don’t” – first of all because you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. But more importantly –on-stage sex doesn’t have to look like real sex. To prove this – we do “five ways” with… termite sex. Show us five ways termites make babies.
And thus “Termite Sex” was born. We usually play this game during week 4 or 5 to keep breaking the sexual energy barrier and open people up. I invented this for Lisa shortly after her “finger” problem.
Lisa has moved on to other parts of her life but her impact on the theater and my teaching style remains. I had been so set on my teaching style that I forgot to listen to my own teachings: I needed Lisa to challenge me at my own game…. Show us five ways to teach an improv class!