It’s really nice to see new improvisers perform for the first time. I have a lot of respect for first timers taking the stage and giving it their all, but I do find that a few new improvisers are in way too much of a hurry to ‘get good’.
Nobody gets good at improv, you just improve a little more each time. There’s no end goal; there are shows, some are amazing, some are bad, some are just meh, but no one will ever get to ‘Best show ever done’. This enthusiasm to improve is good but you’ve got to take your time. You run the risk of burning out and getting in your head. Sometimes it ends up with new students creating an incredibly rushed first show.
This leads to many performers reinventing the wheel. Believing that an original idea for an improv show is the most important part about a paid show. It’s not. You lose sight of what’s important; the improv itself.
There are loads of improv formats to practice, and some are not restricting to the format.
For example, Harold might seem pretty daunting the first time you see that overly complicated tree-like structure, but in reality it’s just a stabiliser wheel, a way to help you focus on your original scene which could be ANYTHING based on a word.
New performers are too in-fixed in creating a “good” show that tries to do too much. You want good characters, a good story, good comedic moments, good moments of drama, you’re asking too much of yourself and the team.
Something that always comes to my mind when I hear a new show idea is “Would it be better if you just wrote it?”. If the answer is yes, that’s great, go write it, but it’s not improv. If you want an improv show, think about how you can limit the possibilities for planning ahead.
Longform has the advantage of teaching you one thing; improv comedy. That’s our goal. We want to make the audience laugh. With that in mind, we put less pressure on ourselves to create a perfect show that tries to add too much of everything. One goal, one outcome.
So it doesn’t matter what the format is, it’s there to help us and the audience understand what’s happening, the real talent and the real focus comes from the improv scenes, that’s where the magic happens, and that’s what the focus should be on.
If you’re putting on a new show, that’s great, more power to you. Just be careful not to overwhelm yourself with so much stuff. The simpler the better. Quality over quantity.
As you progress with your improv and start looking for opportunities to perform, sooner or later you
may need to audition. Let’s look at how improv auditions work and if there’s anything you can do to
perform well in them.
What are you auditioning for?
Generally speaking, you will either be auditioning to join a specific show(s) or join a team who may
or may not have ongoing shows. If you are auditioning for a show, then that show will usually have a
director you are auditioning for. If you are auditioning to join a team you may be auditioning for the
team or perhaps the coach for that team.
You should prepare for the audition in the same way you would prepare for anything you want to
perform well at. These are some obvious (but not always followed) suggestions:
- Turn up on time, probably 15 minutes early. As well as leaving a good impression this stops
any last-minute panic of thinking you’re not going to make it in time.
- Turn up well rested. Being tired does not tend to lead to good improv.
- Turn up sober. This should be obvious.
- Wear comfortable clothing. You may well be moving around a lot.
- Bring a drink. It’s important to stay hydrated.
What happens in an audition?
An audition will usually take the form of a workshop led by the director/coach/one of the team. The
person leading the audition will often take some time at the start to explain more about what you
are auditioning for, how the audition will work and what they may be looking for. The workshop will
then feel much like any other improv class. After the workshop you’ll be advised, usually via email,
whether you were successful. You will often have a chance to ask for feedback if you are
How can you do well?
Well that’s the million-dollar question isn’t it! I find performing well either in auditions or shows can
be split in to 2 areas; technical improv and your state of mind.
From a technical side of things, at this point you’ve probably been to at least a few classes and may
have an opinion or had feedback on areas that you may be stronger or weaker in and been told a
load of ‘improv rules/guidelines’. It’s impossible to remember every note or improv guideline, so I
find it helpful to concentrate on focusing on only 3 things before an audition or show. This could be
anything you think could be helpful; from remembering to initiate scenes, finding emotion on stage,
physicality or playing at the top of your intelligence. Just don’t overload yourself.
Your state of mind can also have a big impact on how you improvise. Anxiety and nerves about an
audition, or stresses and worry in the “real” world can all sometimes lead to a negative
performance. Improvisers will deal with this in different ways; some improvisers may mediate or
focus on stretching before a show/audition. Personally, I like to get my energy up and have even
been known to shadow box! Ultimately, do whatever’s best for you.
The advice of ‘don’t care about auditions’ is often given out as a way to take the pressure off. I
personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with caring about something you want to do well in,
but I’d suggest aiming for a ‘relaxed caring’ if you can! Care about the audition, be at your best but
try and have fun. That’s probably when you’ll do your best improv!
What if I’m not successful?
Don’t worry about it! There could be lots of reasons you weren’t chosen, many of which have
nothing to do with your improv ability. Director’s/teams have to make sure shows/teams are well
balanced and it may be that they just felt someone else was more suitable this time. There’ll be
other opportunities and if you want some feedback just ask.
I hope that was useful and good luck for any auditions you may have in the future!
Really? No mistakes?
I agree that with the right amount of support from your teammates you can change a mistake and make it part of the show.
For example, if two players are on a date and they’ve established their names are George and Amanda, a third player walks in, honestly hasn’t heard the names, and refers to the two as George and Katerina. “Katerina” can make a support move by incorporating the mistake in the reality of the scene, “George, it’s actually me your mother, I’ve been pretending to be a woman named Amanda so I can see what you get up to on weekends. We should talk more.”
This is a nice support move, but I would personally still bring up the fact that the third character should have been listening from the start. It’s obvious the two original players had an idea, and because of the mistake, it had to change. After all, a key rule in improv is listening.
This wouldn’t be too much of a problem in a class environment or a free Jam Night, I think mistakes are encouraged when learning. You can learn a lot through your own mistakes.
When it comes to performing in front of an audience however, that’s when this idea of “there are no mistakes” ironically fails.
I get it, we want to support each other as teammates, that should be encouraged 100%, but when someone makes a mistake, we shouldn’t brush it off to one side, we should talk about it. If you’re charging audiences to come see your improv show, you should be expected to put effort into your performance.
I don’t respect teams who don’t rehearse, or think that just turning up and “winging it” on the night will amount to a good show. Hell no, if you are charging audiences, or guesting in a paid night, your duty is to entertain the audience.
I love the Harold team I’m in, Jazz Police. The best part about being in that team is the amount of detail and hours we put into our post and pre show briefings. It might look like we’re dicking about on stage, but we put more thought into what we’re doing than you might think. And we go HARD; there have been times where I know I’ve made a bad move, or I wasn’t listening, and we all talk about it as a group and offer things we could improve on, and how we could have supported, and I never feel embarrassed or stressed about it because I’m surrounded by altruistic players who want to improve as much as I do. Everyone supports, everyone contributes, everyone listens, and we all share each others enthusiasm to put on a good show.
I would say there are no mistakes in improv if you’re learning, or encouraging support in your training. In improv led jams, there are no mistakes as we are all here to support the fact we’re improvising together on stage.
If you want to take it seriously however, charging audiences as an improv team, know that mistakes can happen; the trick is to not ignore it, take ownership of it, and learn from it.
Some tips for improv teams staying together.
1 - Get a coach. Have someone watch your rehearsal runs, they don't have to teach. Getting honest notes from an unbiased opinion forces you to think about how you're communicating to the audience. You want to get genuine laughs, not just entertain your teammates with in-jokes.
There are loads of experienced improv coaches in the UK who can really make a difference to your team, and who charge very little.
Even the most mediocre improv teacher can be the best audience member, and their opinions matter. They can find things you won’t be able to spot while you’re busy exploring your scene.
2 - Get the keen beans! Some teams put on auditions to get new people in their group. Spending too much time looking for the ‘right’ person can be risky, and may cause arguments. Go for players who genuinely want to be in the team, and they seem like decent folk. They might not be as experienced as others, but they make up for it in effort. These players usually end up improving way quicker.
3 - Spread out the work. It’s not healthy to have one person do everything for the group. Marketing, bookings, ticket sales, tech, it’s not a one person job, even if they’ve self-proclaimed themselves to be in charge of the group. Spread that shit out, be involved. You’re not showing up to perform, that’s what guests do. You’re in a team. Work as a team, on stage and off.
4 - Stop improvising all the time! Go out. Do something together. Get a drink at the pub. Have a movie night. You shouldn’t have to be funny 24/7, give yourself a break. Too much improv is a problem, believe it or not. Have the time to relax, get to know each other outside of improv too.
5 - Warm ups. Do your warm ups before every rehearsal and show. Don’t ever assume you don’t need to warm up any more. Ego’s don’t survive in improv teams.
6 - Don’t feel pressured. If you really aren't feeling the group, If you would rather spend more time in another team, If you’re constantly missing rehearsals, If you want to give improv up for a while, You have the right to leave. You’re not letting anyone down. Improv comes second to your life. Teams only work if the players all want to be there, and there’s no shame in taking time off.
7 - Stick to your format. Commit to the format/structure that you’re doing. Keep doing it until you remember all the beats. Continue doing it until your shows become consistently good. Continue doing it until it becomes second nature to you. Continue doing it until you get bored of it! Only then decide as a group what format you want to do next.
Don’t assume you’ve mastered the format after five shows.
8 - Money isn't everything. You’re not going to make good money doing this. Don’t start a team for the financial rewards, it’s a fool's errand! Do it because you love the show, you love your teammates, and you love the experience.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t aim for money, if you want to make a monthly night and charge audiences, that’s great, but that money will most likely go to rehearsals, paying other guests/teams, and marketing.
9 - Watch other teams. If you’re at an improv night, do stick around and make an effort to watch the other teams. Maybe you might think they’re not very good, or it’s not your style; don’t be a dick, stick around and support. It’s good to watch other improv teams, see how they’re doing things differently, apply it to your team or your personal style, and talk to your teammates about it. At the end of the day, everyone's here to support the art form, so the least you can do is give them a clap at the end of their set.
10 - Look after each other. It can be the worst feeling in the world when you screw up in a scene. You feel like you’re letting your teammates down, you’re letting the audience down. It sucks. Make sure you’ve got each other's backs. If someones feeling really down after a show, know how to help them. Take them to one side and talk about it, encourage them to continue, talk about the good bits, or if they need space, give them space. Don’t alienate them by ignoring it. Support each other in the best and worst of times.
I’ve recently had a few students say how much they dislike the warm up game Zip Zap Zop. I was a bit confused. This harmless warm up? What’s wrong with it?
I get it though, it’s a pretty simple game with no real challenge and it’s not particularly fun.
Everyone in a circle, players pass a single clap to one another saying “zip”, “zap”, then “zop” continuously in that order, over and over again. Sounds super simple. And boring, now that I read it.
Warm ups are designed to literally warm up a part of your body before getting into the exercise and/or scenes of the listen. It’s a nice introduction to a class, and it can help shake off those pre-class nerves.
If we understand what Zip Zap Zop is designed for, maybe we can understand what it’s helping us to do, and maybe we can even start to enjoy it.
In his book ‘How To Be The Greatest Improviser In The World’, Will Hines explains that Zip Zap Zop is not being played properly. The whole point of ZZZ is to concentrate, so it’s strange to accept someone genuinely getting confused when a Zip, Zap, Zop lands on them, explains Hines.
He’s right. Triple Z is not supposed to be a fun warm up, it’s supposed to help you concentrate, keep your mind focused on one goal. This might seem like a boring place to start an improv class but the truth is it can make you think about the necessities of an improv scene. Concentration can lead to listening hard to your partner, group mind is encouraged for group games, the speed in which you play can help you react quicker, and most importantly it put you in ‘the now’, right now in the moment.
I’ve come up with a four step plan on how to play with the Z triplets. If you’re ever bored with one way of playing, or you think you’ve mastered it, go to the next step. Chances are if you’re someone who doesn’t like this warm up, you’ve probably outgrown it.
Step one: Being in the moment. The simplest way of playing it, at your own time and pace, you’re being aware, you’re looking, you’re waiting, you’re ready.
Step two: Speed. Exactly the same way but the group slowly starts to build up speed. Keep the speed going, if it gets faster, you get faster. See how quickly you can all go! If someone slows down the pace, no worries, start from the beginning, start slow again and build up.
Step three: Listening. Someone in the circle can change the meaning of one of them zeezee’s. Zip, zap, zop, zip, zap, banana, zip, zap, banana. Once the change has been made, it becomes permanent. Listen to each other, play off the change, support it. You can change the word as many times as you want, but maybe give yourselves some time between the next change so you can get used to the first change.
Step four: Group mind. This one’s my favourite. This is mostly seen in experienced improv teams before a gig or at rehearsals. The aim is to do anything, the rules don’t apply. The only thing that sticks is a passing of focus from one person to another. You can say anything, do anything, and that might seem risky as tomfoolery will be afoot, but you will notice a strong connection with the rest of your teammates. You’re supporting, yes anding, playing with patterns, you’re listening, you’re fully in the moment, it’s a great time.