“I will not jump into the water, until I learn to swim,” – said the fool. / Julian Tuwim
You decided. You want to jump in and do improv FOR REAL. If you feel like it, don’t hesitate, it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself.
Suppose you are at the beginning of your journey – you made a decision, but you still don’t know how to organize the group. Now I’ll tell you what you should focus on, before calling the local comedy clubs. I know that enthusiasm is power, but hold your horses until you answer yourself a few questions. It is better to start a little later, and work together for 10 years, than to go with the flow and drop it after few months.
First, and the most important thing is learning. Believe me, watching Whose Line is it Anyway, or even live performances, isn’t enough. Knowing the rules of football, doesn’t mean you’re football player. People often start attending workshops, because they were under impression that they can “do it better” than what they saw on stage. As long as you don’t try to play, you’ll be stuck in your head with your imaginary powers. Sometimes people come with strong vision of how improv should look like, to be cool. They make shitty jokes, looking at me with satisfaction, because they think they impressed me. Unfortunately, those students have a hard work to do. Before they do any progress, they must go back a few steps to fix bad habits. You cannot fight them, until you notice them. Therefore, it is important to learn from someone, before taking your independent action. Of course, if you live in a city where you have no teachers, then just organize a team and rehearse. It is not impossible, just more difficult because we have to discover everything on your own. No one will help you and make your process faster.
When we started working with the W Gorącej Wodzie Kompani group, we had nobody to learn from, because we were the first around. I am very grateful for that process. We had to discover such things as the laugh isn’t the purpose of the scene (nobody wanted to go onstage with people who were forcing jokes and betraying the scenes). If you learn by yourselves, move on to the second point. And watch out. I know groups that learned by themselves and fallen into the belief that they are doing something right, and even trainers from outside couldn’t fix their bad habits. I have a lot of patience to students, but one thing I don’t tolerate – a lack of humility.
2. More workshops.
Whether you’re lucky and you can learn improv every week, or not, it is good to see the bigger picture. Meet people who you like to work with (see section 3) and practice together, beyond workshops. Wright down your notes and doubts. Talk about them with your teacher. Take workshops in other cities, work with as many trainers from abroad or from other parts of the country, as you can. You can go to the same, basic workshop to 5 different teachers and every time learn something new, see a different perspective. In my international group Ohana, I learn, that in every country, there are little differences, that are considered very important. When you form a group, you can invite teachers for special workshops for your group. Fresh eye will show you new opportunities and your old patterns. It may give you some fresh energy to create and have more fun, or bring new styles of impro.
3. Gathering the group.
If you think that gathering people to create a group is a problem, you have no idea of the real problem yet. Of course, you can say, “Hey, who wants to improvise, let’s do that!” and get a bunch of people, who can connect brilliantly, sparkle and perform for years. But you can also try, and try, and never have that spark. Some people may not like each other. Some of them can be very hard to work with. Everyone can be great on stage, but the different temperaments won’t allow them to get along in a normal conversation. I’ll put it like that – as you are single, have as many affairs as you want, but if you want to build a relationship, do it with someone that you are sure (or at least excited!). Grab a beer together, find out everything about others. Understand how you all think. Understanding without words brings magic on stage. Take workshops with a hundred different people, gain experience, but if you want to get together as a group, then be sure that in a year or five you will still find those people interesting. Try going to jams together. Try a single project. And if you feel excited, then start a group.
How many people to take? Just a few. When we started our first group, we had 17 (!) people. During one year, the melted down to 11 people. That was a lot, but because of that there were always some people available for work. The most comfortable is when you are on stage a few people – in this way you can as well play the long and short forms. With time, you will try other things, if you start with short forms, you will go for long, free, duos, solos – whatever drives you at the moment. The time will come.
4. Group rules.
Now the important part. If you have gathered a team, it’s time to sit down together at a round table and set up… everything. Firstly, are you a leader? Is someone else? Do you want to make decisions democratically? If you choose to democracy, rules are really useful – thanks to them, you won’t have to argue about every little thing, every time. The questions that you must ask yourselves, among others:
- How do you divide the group tasks? Who is responsible for the rehearsals? Who’s for social media? Who’s keeping the group’s money? Who takes care of collecting materials, photos, videos? Who’s responsible for contacting the clubs and theatres?
- What will be your group’s name? (it should say something about you! Your vision, your identity! It doesn’t have to have “impro” in the name! What will make people remember it?) What about graphics? (For example, the logo. And make a decent photoshoot – it can be simple, as long as technically professional, because bad pictures suggest sloppiness and being not proffesional). Do you have any distinguishing element you, the mascot?
- How do you want to look? What will be your dresscode, do you want to have T-shirts with the logo of the group (personally I don’t like it), to dress in a particular color, style?
- What do you want to play? Short forms, and try longforms later? Short forms forever, because they are entertaining and fun? Only longforms, because you think short are to mainstream for your artistic souls? I know groups that vanished, because after some time they realized they have different priorities. I would suggest to be open to all the forms. And accept the process. Now you may think, that only one form excites you, but it will change with time. The best improvisers search for art and adventure wherever improv way leads them. Stay open. And curious.
- How do you want to develop? Do you know what are your weakest and strongest points? You can give yourself the task for the next rehearsal – If you played recently talking heads, train your body. You can set a theme for every season, like I do with my student, for example a Year of Risking, or a Year od Listening, and work on that, among other things. If you feel like the task doesn’t work, or you accomplished something, you can always change it.
- When do you start performing? There is no universal rule. Some people are jumping on stage after a few weeks, some after a year are not sure. You have to feel it. Go to a jam, join the game, confront the audience. Playing even in front of five people is a totally different world, comparing to playing for 30 people at the workshop. If you have your teacher there – ask for feedback. And one thing you HAVE TO keep in your mind – YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR US ALL. All the community. All the improvisers. Improv Art itself. If you feel too confident, and you go cocky on stage, without any skills, and you show shitty improv, audience will think that all improv is shitty, and never come back. And if the improvisers weren’t so nice people, they would find you and kill you.
- What about money? Money is trouble, always. It is better to immediately set up, for example, that for the first year you won’t charge for the tickets. Decide right away, what will you do with the money, when you have it. Do you divide it between players? Do you keep the money and make your T-shirts, or pay for facebook ads? Save it for tickets to improv festivals? For the workshops? Hire a new teacher for your private practice?
5. Get to know the local community.
You’re not alone. If your city has it’s own improv community, it will be easy to get to know the others. Maybe there is a facebook group where you can say hello and invite people to your first show? Go to other group’s shows. Ask more experienced improvisers for help. If you have a problem, they probably already worked it out. Respect the community. Don’t compete. Don’t be assholes. Don’t be a star. Time, the market and people are merciless for assholes. On the other hand, when someone is causing you a trouble – well I advise you to simply avoid such people. Don’t waste your energy. If someone is an asshole, because he’s frustrated, has problems with self esteem, it will affect the people around – including you. But you know what? That is his problem. Not yours. Walk away. In life we are experiencing so many situations that we don’t want to be in, that improv is really the last thing to be forced to do anything. Do your thing, the best you can. Don’t be discouraged by empty audience. With my first group we were playing for a few(!) people (there were more us-improvisers, than the audience), and after some time we has full university auditorium and the audience had to sit also on the stairs and windowsills. Get involved in local improv community and you will feel that it’s a strength. You don’t “steal” audience from others. You are building it together. Organize jams together. Festivals. Hire trainers for workshops. Improv gathers wonderful, empathetic and kind people. With which is a hell of a lot of fun.
“Improv is a school of freedom.” – Said Kuba, one of my students. Learn. Be free. Follow your emotions, your excitement. Enjoy this fire that burns inside you. Agree on all the issues I wrote above, but listen and react – if something doesn’t work – change it. Understand what you want as a group, and follow it, because that makes you unique. And jump!