What should I expect from an improv comedy workshop?
April 11, 2010 10:52 PM   Subscribe

What should I expect from an improv comedy workshop?

I've never had any experience in acting or theater, and I'm not really much of a funny kind of guy, but I've been wanting to try new things, and I figure improv could be fun. I don't know much about it, but I guess I'd picture it as being something like from that show Whose Line is it Anyway. Is this a good idea for me to try? Anybody got any good video examples of what I could expect from an improv workshop? Any tips for preparing to do it?

posted by Ryogen to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Um, let's see...a lot of discomfort and embarrassment courtesy of your time on stage, and a lot of cringeworthy moments courtesy of your classmates on stage, and then over time you'll get a certain comfort level with each other, and then -- for reasons nobody understands -- some of you will suddenly click in a scene and you'll be entertaining and you'll be amazed and enthralled, then you'll shit out some terrible overconfident stuff, and eventually you'll start trusting the rules and will be entertaining more often and terrible less often. Still occasionally terrible, of course, but you won't care so much any more.

For me, the "oh shit, this is awesome" moment came when we tried doing musical improv (turned out I'm good at it, whereas lots of people hate it), and then again when we did an entire scene with our eyes closed, even those not involved with the scene (theater of the mind is always better anyway) and after that it was easy-peasy. Except when it wasn't. But I didn't care so much any more.

Have fun. Good luck. Don't be afraid to suck.
posted by davejay at 11:13 PM on April 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Here. It is a flaming kitten. Say something funny.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:19 PM on April 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

It'll take more than a poorly-named drink to make me dance like a monkey.
posted by davejay at 11:37 PM on April 11, 2010

People with transparent motivations for being there.
Sex, companionship, and validation top the list.

Your interactions may include but are not limited to the following:
The "everyone I know finds my manic energy and loud overbearing voice hilarious" type, the unaware of their own awkwardness type, the introvert, the proud weirdo, the mundanely average person, the type that mistakes snark for wit, and the run of the mill smart-aleck/class clown.

But yeah, it's a good idea to try. Some of the excercises are fun, depending on the instructor and the group dynamic.
posted by beardlace at 2:08 AM on April 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's been a while since I did a workshop, but here goes. Improv on a basic workshop level is a lot like Whose Line, but the games are a bit simpler, and there'll be a lot more stopping and starting as the instructor explains things. The most important things to remember:

* The concept of "yes, and". What this means is going along with whatever reality is established in the game or scene you're doing, and possibly building on it. For example, if the first line said to you is "Hello, son", for the rest of that game or scene, you're the other person's son. (Of course, you could always turn out to be an evil twin or a clone or something else later, but start out slow...)

* You know that part of your brain that's always analyzing what you're about to say, and sometimes thinks "Wow, I shouldn't say that"? As much as is possible, try to turn it off or at least dial it back a few notches. The best improv comes from a sort of Zen-like place of just being in the moment and reacting to what's happening on stage.

* On a Zen-related note, the most crucial thing I can tell you is this: Don't try to be funny. Go along with the flow of the scene or game, and the funny will happen organically. Or it won't, but that's perfectly okay--the great thing about improv is that if it's not working, other people are there to save you, and if they can't save you, everyone can have a "Wow, that went off the rails" laugh and move right along to the next thing.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 2:43 AM on April 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Don't try to be funny.

Yeah, this, a thousand times this. Don't be the person who tries to be funny, because nobody is actually that person. Be the person who tries to be truthful, because the person you think is desperately, effortlessly funny is the one speaking simple, honest truths.

I was never a good improviser, really, but there are a handful of things I did on stage or in rehearsal that still stick with me over a decade later, and they were simple and true reactions to the situation I was in. A great improviser, on the other hand, probably only remembers the few situations in which they responded falsely or dishonestly, and kicks themselves to avoid doing it again.

Oh, and for fuck's sake, don't do drugs on stage. Ever1. Even if everyone else is. It is the most boring, hackneyed premise in the history of all improv, it is what everyone defaults to when they're trying to be funny, and being the only person on stage who isn't doing drugs immediately tells you a whole lot about your character.

1unless of course another player has just told you you're doing drugs, in which case you go with it, but you'll never do it convincingly, so just do it intentionally inappropriately or use hopelessly dated/incorrect names for the drug you're doing until your teammate figures out that you're not actually doing drugs at all.
posted by davejay at 3:16 AM on April 12, 2010

On his podcast, stand up comedian, Marc Maron, had an interview with improv comedian, Matt Walsh (one of the founders of the Upright Citizens Brigade), a while back and the interview turned into an improv lesson, so you might find it useful or at least interesting. Here's the episode.
posted by p3t3 at 5:36 AM on April 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

Do it! You'll be glad you did. I started doing improv just for the hell of it and it has turned into a true passion of mine.

Beginners' lesson(s) will be pretty gentle - you'll do a lot of games which are easy to learn and help you get to know your fellow participants. What exactly you do depends on what type of improv/who's teaching, but it will likely be things like throwing mimed ninja stars or balls, rhyming and memory type games. A good teacher will also make sure you get to know each other and that everyone's comfortable.

As you progress in lessons you will start working mainly with object work (there are no props in improv, so you have to learn to mime things), simple scenes trying out different characters or approaches, working together to tell a story, etc. If you're doing shortform improv it will mostly continue with games and internal challenges (ie: tell a story as a group, one word at a time) whereas longform improv will focus more on building a reality, playing within it, and telling a story.

At first you might be shy/nervous but remember everyone there feels that way. After your first few times performing in class you will probably feel a bit of a rush (which is a small taste of what it likes when you make it onto the real stage). Self-consciousness is normal but realize that watching someone who isn't willing to try and stands there squiriming is always worsen than watching someone dive in and fail terrifically (which is often the fun of it).

You'll meet a whole range of people with different goals, likely make a few new friends and will definitely have a good time with lots of laughs. It's basically taking a group of adults and giving them permission to play, the way you did when you were a kid - to be silly and let loose and step outside of the day-to-day world. Enjoy that - it's so freeing!

If you have any more questions, memail me. I can blather on about improv all damn day.
posted by SassHat at 9:19 AM on April 12, 2010

Expect fun. Don't go expecting anything or worrying or over thinking. Improv is no place for your plate of beans. Just go, relax, have fun.
posted by chairface at 10:34 AM on April 12, 2010

Think of it as mental limbering-up rather than comedy.

You'll do a bunch of different games/exercises, sort of like the ones on Whose Line, and much of what the group produces will be not-super-funny. Don't worry about being funny, just say something. In many of the games, saying *something* is the whole key, and if you manage to say or do something, you're doing just fine. As you go on, it will get easier to think of things. You're part of a team passing the ball around looking for an open shot; keeping the ball in motion is worthwhile on its own. If you're only funny one out of ten times, that's still great, don't get worried.

Dirty stuff usually gets laughs, but I would challenge yourself to avoid it because it's too easy (har har! proctologist!), and you won't get as much benefit from the exercises. (it's like taking an exercise class and stopping before you've finished the ten reps, or whatever - not a huge deal, but it's a good challenge to finish strong and do your full reps)

Mr Bad Example is exactly right about "yes, and". In his example, compare these two scenes:

Bob: Hi, son!
You: But, I'm not your son.
(scene comes to a halt, then one of you has to re-start it by saying what the relationship is and why Bob is mistaken)


Bob: Hi son!
You: Hi pop, how was work?
Bob: It was a great day, I got a promotion!
You: Great news, pop! What's the new job?
(etc: here, the scene can continue to go somewhere)

Keep the ball moving, even if you can't see a punch line from where you're standing.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:39 PM on April 12, 2010

Don't say no to anything. That's really the one rule of improv.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:43 PM on April 12, 2010

Improv is awesome! I did a workshop in late 08 then spent the past year doing semi-regular improv gigs.

The workshop I went to was pretty casual; there wasn't a "stage" to speak of. We'd often work in groups, and once in a while we'd do a big game together or perform for each other, but there wasn't any expectation of being terrific. You were allowed - hell, encouraged - to mess up. that went for the live shows too! It was all about giving it a go.

"Yes, and" will get you very far. Also don't think too hard. This isn't an improv thing, but I've learnt how to let your body decide the responses. Something will bubble up from within, bypassing your analytical brain - use that. Go with your instincts. Even the most Captain-Obvious-like line could work well. I've seen some great drama and human connection made just through improv.

man I miss improv.
posted by divabat at 6:37 AM on April 14, 2010

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