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The College Grad’s Guide to Improv

By Rich Alfonso, The Second City | May 28, 2014

It’s May, and tons of new college graduates will be flocking to Chicago to study improvisation. Well graduates, you’ll be happy to know that college has prepared you well for life as an improviser.  Here’s what you need to know:

1. Paying for Classes

As a college student, you’re no stranger to debt. If you’re in this for the long haul, be prepared to shell out for each program. Classes will take about three years to complete (a year at each of the three main theaters), unless you’re a go-getter who takes all the programs at once. This, however, is very ill-advised. Improv is like a hangover: only time makes it better.  

Taking each program at once is overwhelming and there really is NO rush to get them all done at once. Take your time and fully enjoy what each theater teaches. Each program is entirely unique. Use the extra time to get a group of friends, make a team, and perform around the city to get reps in. Besides, unless you’re independently wealthy or your parents think this is an MBA program, you’ll have to take out a loan to pay for all those simultaneous tuitions. 

Trust me, college already put you in debt— don’t let improv put you in bankruptcy. 

2. Getting Started

Starting out as an improviser is a lot like getting an entry-level job. It doesn’t pay* as much as you thought it would, but you took it for the experience. Except, improv is more like an unpaid internship. No cash, just credit. The one major bonus is stage time. Stage time is a paramount experience that no amount of classes can supplement. Outside of student shows, expect to do a fair amount of bar-prov, garage-prov, and hipster coffee house-prov. 

These are the toughest houses you’ll have, primarily because half the audience will have no idea it’s improv night and won’t be paying attention, and the other half will be other improv teams who are waiting for your set to be done so they can play. Think of your team as a club at a Student Activities Fair that’s trying to get new members. At the end of the day, everybody’s just there for the half-priced drafts. 

*Sometimes, you get paid in beer tickets. While you can’t pay your rent with beer tickets, you can forget rent is due with beer tickets. 

3. Auditions

Auditions are like job interviews. You’ll go in hyped-up, nervous, with shiny resume in hand, dressed to the nines, and as prepared as you’ve ever been. It will feel like a matter of life and death

Then you’ll get there and see a ton of equally nervous people, just like you, and slowly realize how many people are auditioning for this gig. But think of it this way: nobody gets their dream job right out of college. You have the right education, but lack the experience and skill set. The same holds true for comedy. Except in this case, experience doesn’t mean how many classes or shows you’ve done, it’s how your experiences have shaped you as a performer. 

4. Getting Your First Gig

Whether it’s a house team, a sketch show or a web series, your first gig is a big deal. Go ahead, be excited. Just remember you’re still in the process of learning. It’s important that you keep pushing yourself to take risks and perform with new people. If college has taught you anything, it’s that the work only gets more challenging. Shows get bigger, writing gets tougher, you work with teammates of a higher caliber. The only way to be prepared for that is to push yourself when you’re starting out. 

Don’t think of anything as your “best,” think of it as your new bar.

5. Take a Break

Don’t forget to have a life. In college, you weren’t about classes 24 hours a day. That would have sucked. Improv is the same deal. If you don’t get out and live, you’ll just end up burnt out and in your head. Make friends, go to parties, road trip to the Scranton Anthracite museum—whatever. Just glean an experience outside of the community.  

Improv will give you tons of memorable experiences, but having a full life is vital to developing your point of view as a writer, performer, and general human being. Ironically, the more you apply yourself at this step, the quicker #2 will happen, making #3 a lot easier, leading to #4 happening a lot more often— you get it.    

Rich Alfonso is an alum of The Second City Training Center and a contributor to The Second City Network. You can see him perform around town with Shanna’s Mom, Chaos (a ComedySportz House Team) and his 2-man team, Spic & Tan in the 2014 Dual Duel showcase. 

Erin Lann is an understudy for the Second City Touring Company and cast member of Improv All Stars.  She performs weekly with Annoyance House Ensemble: Fire & Beer, her two-lady team Sorry ‘Bout, and will be part of the 2014 Women’s Funny Festival with her musical improv team, Andies. 

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