How to lead a level 1 improv class

By Randall | Games for Workshop
13 Mar 2012

Building an ensemble out of a motley crew of students is a sizable challenge. This is the formula that was used in my first improv class, and only now am I beginning to realize its genius.

Get them to work to share their voice. We started out by playing “Ball” in the parking lot. “Ball” is a simple game where everyone stands in a circle and tries to keep a ball up in the air for as long as possible. The two rules are that no person can hit the ball twice in a row, and everyone counts together aloud each time the ball is hit. Doing something together like this, working towards a common goal and sharing your voice, builds a bond. It communicates to everyone “we’re all in this, we’re all doing this, we’re all supporting each other.” When I started improv class, I was trying to find my voice again; I had lost it after spending lots of time alone living in Trinidad. I found it difficult to even count along with the class because I was so in my head. When I would hang out with my coworkers, I would think of tons of things to say, but I would never say them. I didn’t even realize what a wall I had built up against my own language until I found myself struggling just to count out loud with a group of people.

Get them to look stupid together. Our second activity was a game called “Superheroes.” Everyone had to come up with a word that started with the same letter as their name, and some kind of physical motion. The one I chose was Randy Rickshaw, and I pretended to be pulling a rickshaw while jogging in place. After everyone has demonstrated their action, one person starts out by saying their name and word, while doing the motion, then says the name and word of someone else while doing the other person’s action. The second person repeats their own before doing the next person’s, and so on. Not only is this a great way to learn names, but it also gets everyone over that initial evolutionary hump of “I’m doing actions that draw attention to myself, but being noticed is okay because nothing is going to attack me.”

Get them to make eye contact. Games like “Zip, Zap, Zop” or “Go,” where you just have to choose someone in the circle, make eye contact, and send the focus to them, are powerful tools for breaking the ice. It starts getting people to connect with everyone else in the group without inferring subtext that is not really there. You have to make a choice, but you don’t have time to think about the choice. If the cute girl keeps looking at me, it just means that I am the first person that she saw, and that we are connecting here and now, in this space, for the goal of building something together, and not that she has a crush on me. There is no reason to make eye contact with someone who is “safe” or avoid eye contact with someone who is “dangerous.” Continue noticing, and being noticed by, each other.

Get them to fail. Explain that class is a safe place, a judgement free zone, and that failure is ok. In fact, in improv class, we celebrate failure because it means that we are trying something new. Then have volunteers get up in front of the class and fail. We did this by having students come up in pairs and do a scene where every response had to be a question; then a scene where every response started with “No”; then a scene where every response had to begin with “Yes, but.” They get to succeed at the exercise by failing at the scenes. Celebrate the failure with applause.

Let them succeed. Finally, teach the cornerstone principle of “Yes, and.” Have a couple of students do a quick scene, verbally saying “Yes, and” as the beginning of each response, and let the group discover how much can be built in a scene from just the imagination of two people who are exchanging and accepting each other’s ideas.

 

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One Comment

  1. Jay says:

    This is a great post. I’ve taught several classes and workshops with more advanced students, but I’ve never felt comfortable working with absolute beginners. This is a great framework for what the goals should be in a beginner class. Seems like this should have been obvious to me. I guess I’ve forgotten how to think like someone who has never improvised. (That thought makes me happy too.)

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