How to buikld an improv troupe - yes, and?
August 13, 2012 8:29 PM   Subscribe

I am trying to form an improv practice group that will become (I hope) a performance group. I need tips across the board - how do we find rehearsal space for free/cheap, how do we run our practice sessions, how do we make the leap from practice to performance? What other questions am I not even thinking to ask?

About a year ago I took my first improv class through a local group and was hooked. I've just finished my 3rd 8 week class with them. All 3 classes were level 1, but had variety from different classmates and two different teachers. I've also taken an 8 hour intensive with the same folks. They're looking at offering an advanced class this fall which I'll take, and I'll be doing 5 weeks of drop in sessions with a completely different group. I've performed 4 times- one graduation show for each class.

What I really want is to do improv every week with cool people, and not have to worry about when a class session is over, or working with people who make me crazy. I've reached out to people from my classes and the intensive, and there's 7 of us who are interested in meeting. Yay! All 7 of us have at least the intensive or one 8 week class as experience, and most of us have more, but no one has a ton of experience. BTW, we're a short form group; I don't know that any of us have any long form experience at all.

- How do we find free or cheap rehearsal space? Where should we look? We can probably use my church basement once a month, but need space for the other 3 weeks.
- None of us have run a troupe. How do we manage that part, and getting more done in our rehearsal time than just playing, fun as it is? It would be good to have someone coaching, but I'm not sure if we should try to get someone experienced, take turns doing it ourselves, or what?
- We have a standing invite to open for the troupe I took classes from once we're ready for that. My teachers know I'm trying to get a group going. How did you know you were ready?

tl;dr: Give me your personal experiences and suggestions for getting an improv troupe up and running, both the practical and performance sides. What worked, what didn't, what would you do differently?

EXTRA CREDIT: free spaces in suburban central NJ to rehearse.
posted by booksherpa to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You're probably not going to get better without the guidance/instruction/leadership of at least one experienced person. (Generally, at each level of classes you learn a different technique or aspect of improvisational story telling - defining relationships, defining an environment, creating a story, etc). You're probably going to get bored/frustrated without learning those additional skills.

Most improv teachers are poor struggling actors. I think your first step may be to put an add on craigslist (or wherever) looking for an instructor. If your group can agree to each throw 5 bucks into a pot each week, you could probably get someone to agree to be your own 'private' teacher.
posted by Kololo at 9:11 PM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

The biggest place I was able to find for space was a room in the "community resource center" building of our library. It's no where near the rest if the library and rooms in it are pretty sound insulated. I don't know if most places have something like this in addition to the normal conference rooms. Also ours didn't allow for profit ventures, but we weren't planning on performing as a group.

If any of you are college students than booking a room there should be easy. We've made due with community rooms as part of people's apartment complexes, people's living rooms, and are planning on using someone's racketball court.

I've only done stuff as part of normally established classes and with super casual folks, so I can't offer much advice beyond possible space.
posted by 0bs01337 at 10:44 PM on August 13, 2012

I've formed a theatre group back in the day on the cheap by becoming a student club at the local postsecondary institution; loads of free club space, anytime we needed it.

For ongoing practice space, you don't need a whole lot of room; a living room with the furniture pushed to the side would work, as long as it didn't have thin walls and sharp-eared neighbours.

As far as knowing you're ready, I'd say figure out when the scenes pretty well always click. When the awkwardness of not knowing what to do fades away. At that point, you should have been performing for a month already. Practice is great, but there's no substitute for gameday. (As long as you are reasonably entertaining and don't step on the toes of the troupe you are opening for, they're probably glad to have another 20 minutes of performance, for free, that makes them look good.)
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:42 PM on August 13, 2012

I've formed a literal ton of improv groups. Welcome! Here are some thoughts:

*Cheap rehearsal space: Have you asked the other members of the group if they have something like your church basement? You'd need only 3 of them to come through monthly for space to be fully booked. Failing that, do any of you have a living room that's decently sized or a garage, and roommates that don't mind?

*Running a troupe: I think it best to have a coach. A good coach will keep you guys on task, help you define your brand of humor as you go forward, and serve as the eyes of someone watching, without being too invested, if that makes sense. The going rate for a coach in NYC (where I am) is around $20-30 an hour, not sure what it'd be in your neck of the woods, but if you like the guy you took classes from, most teachers coach (same way many academic teachers do tutoring).

*When are you ready? There's no real rule of thumb, and to an extent it's also dependent on the show. Are you ready for Second City's mainstage? Well, no. Are you ready for the back of a bar with a few other groups of various levels of experience that's more people hanging out and having a good time with a show sorta going on? Possibly. You'll know more after you start rehearsing and feel the vibe of the group. It's like having a kid. You're never Ready, but can be prepared, and knowing when you are prepared enough is basically up to the group.

Which brings me to some other things to consider:

*Dues. If there are costs associated with the group (rehearsal spaces, coaching fees, etc) you may want to enact a policy of everyone paying in advance for the month. This makes things a little easier, as no one is standing there at the end of rehearsal trying to do math while the coach is standing around waiting to get paid. It also means that people don't have to carry someone's share if they're missing on a given week. At the same time, it can be a pain in the ass for whomever is administering it.

*From personal experience: Take your group seriously, people are investing time and money in it. But! Not too seriously. This is your first group, and if you stick with improv it'll be a fond memory someday, probably reasonably soon. Try to act in ways that keep it a fond memory, and don't worry too much about it being the thing that makes you a success as an improviser or performer. I didn't have as much fun as I could have with early groups I was in, and I really regret it. I was too focused on whether or not we were Doing The Right Thing, or Respecting The Form, or whatever manifestoish thing was in my mind at the time. This isn't to say that certain things aren't very important (giving your audience the best show you can, being cool to your co-performers onstage and off), but it is to say that this will be a process of years if you stick with it, and it's best if it's also fun.

*Stretch your legs if you can afford to do so. You're in Jersey which means you're close to one of the improv hubs, NYC. If you can get out to Chicago and see some of what they do, all the better. Boston and Philly have scenes with great people working in them. Seeing shows in any of these places would be great. Most teachers and performers in those cities will coach or run a workshop for you if you can pay. If you'd like some recommendations, feel free to memail me.
posted by qnarf at 6:25 AM on August 14, 2012

Stretch your legs if you can afford to do so. You're in Jersey which means you're close to one of the improv hubs, NYC.

Oh, don't I know it! I've peeked at the class lists at PIT and UCB and Magnet more than once... But I work until 6:30 most nights, and those classes are twice what I pay locally, not including commuting costs. I'm thinking of keeping an eye out for an intensive next summer. I have someone in Manhattan I could stay with, so a week-long intensive class is far more doable for me. One of my teachers plays and teaches at PHIT, I may check them out as well.

Also, and it probably shouldn't matter, but... I'm 43. The good people around me (including my teachers) are in their mid-late 20s, and have a lot of improv experience on me, not to mention faster bodies and brains. I have this image of the NYC classes filled with people much younger than me...

Plus, I was at the South Jersey Comedy Festival this past weekend and saw long form for the first time, and now the universe has just gotten way bigger and I see how much more I have to learn. Scary and exciting, simultaneously. At some point I'll have to bite the bullet and visit a bigger pond. In the meantime, I'm trying to make my little pond a little bigger. :)

Mostly I just can't imagine a life without improv in it now, and want to make sure I have people to play with and a place to play, the chance to perform for an audience and the resources to improve. I know that improv makes me happy and makes me a better person.

And I want to not be intimidated by gibberish. :)
posted by booksherpa at 11:35 AM on August 14, 2012

Well, all that's great, and you seem to have a good sense of everything in its time. The only thing I'd say is that I wouldn't worry too much about your age. I'm 34, and I know a bunch of guys and gals in the scene around here who are older than me. If you want to say hi, let me know if you're going to be around New York.
posted by qnarf at 6:43 AM on August 15, 2012

No offense to short form, but if you're at all interested in long form, I'd definitely spend the money/time to do classes at UCB/Magnet/PIT. The difference is huge and the thrills you get from short form will be retained in long form and then some.

Don't let age intimidate you, there's a lot of variety.

I know more about UCB, so regarding there: there's weekend classes you might consider. I'm an instructor there and recently I've had multiple people who commute to and from Boston/Philly/DC. So people do it.

I believe the instruction at any of the NYC theaters will be vastly superior to anywhere else, and I'd stack it against Chicago or LA as well. NYC is simply the top improv city in the US, along with Chicago and LA.

For practice groups, finding likeminded people, etc. also check out the Improv Resource Center:

I bet there's a fair amount of people who've trained in NYC that are in NJ and would be a good starting place for you.

Hi qnarf!
posted by moedym at 10:03 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

With all my troupes I've found using someone's house (rotating) works great - the 'host' is responsible for providing a light snack for after rehearsal and you all get some bonding time together. A basement, backyard, living room - you really don't need that much space. This coming from someone who was part of a 10-woman improv troupe! People who live far out or in tiny, roommate-filled apartments can use their week as a fun one-off (improv in the park! improv at the beach! improv in a church! improv in the community centre!). Pick a set time and day that you will meet. Whoever is hosting is responsible for ensuring the space is ready for use and everyone knows how to get there.

You don't need experience - you will gain it together. Consider approaching someone on a team you like and asking them to be your coach. Everyone chips in, say, 2 bucks each rehearsal towards their pay. You want someone good who you can learn from. I don't recommend trying to run rehearsal yourselves.

Perform often and regularly (have a monthly show somewhere where your friends can come out, like the upstairs or basement of a bar).

The main frustrations are going to be people dropping out/missing/being late. Try to focus on having a good time and an enthusiastic attitude. If you're having a lot of fun no one will be late because they don't want to miss anything. If you're having a lot of fun people will rearrange their schedules to accommodate the team, not the other way around.

Ignore drama/personal bullshit and make the errant parties deal with it themselves like grown ups.
posted by SassHat at 2:26 PM on August 15, 2012

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