15 Ways to Be a Better Improv Student

By The Second City | Aug 30, 2013

These are not rules. They’re really just observances and thoughts I’ve cobbled together over the last 15 years, as both a student and a teacher. This is just one person’s opinion. Take what you need and leave the rest.

There is no better day than your first day of improv class, and I envy you on this journey.

1. Show up

You’d be amazed by how many folks miss a ton of the classes they signed up for. You have to get there. I know you’re tired, or hungover, or stuck watching an Iyanla: Fix My Life marathon. But turn it off/drink some coffee/take an asprin and get your butt to class. You do yourself, your teacher and your peers a disservice when you miss a class you don’t absolutely have to. Just get there.

2. Take notes

It may seem pretentious. You might not want them now. But five years from now, you may want to start teaching. And you will wish you had those notes.

3. Take a note

If I give you a note, I do it out of love and support and because I want you to grow. That’s the pact you and I make as teacher and student. I don’t think there is a teacher out there that gives notes to be mean. Or to waste class time. Or to hear themselves talk. So please, if you are given a note, do me a favor. Sit on it for 24 hours before you judge it. Feel it out first. Try it on. And if you still think we need to talk about it, let me know. And we will.

4. Shower

This is a physical art. You share a small space with many other people in class. Most classrooms have terrible temperature control. So shower. Because while we are building a beautiful stage picture, my head may need to be near your crotch. Don’t make me regret that.

5. Don’t be a dick

This is pretty easy to do. Just don’t give your fellow actors notes; even cryptically (you’re not as clever as you think). And keep your hands to yourself.

6. Fail-- and fail big

The most common complaint about a lot of teachers is that they don’t give enough personal notes. For some, that may be true. But, I ask you this: were you really doing anything in class that warranted a note? Are you free of the fear of failing? After all, this is a class-- not a show. It’s an art form where mistakes are celebrated. My guess is that if you’re not getting enough personal notes, you’re playing it safe. Try shaking it up.

7. Be a spectator when it’s time to be a spectator

We ask you to see shows (and I’ll get to the importance of that in a moment), and we expect you to see them. The operative word here is “see.” Seeing means sitting in your chair, being a careful and smart observer of what’s happening around you. So please, for the love of all things holy, don’t volunteer if one is asked for. Wait for your shot to play with those folks you look up to on equal ground. On the same token, let an audience offer the suggestion. This is their one chance to shine. Don’t take it away from them. You’ll be taking your own suggestions soon enough.

8. Go see shows

This isn’t a suggestion. This is one of the most important things (outside of class and independant play) that you can do for yourself. See good shows and bad shows, old players and new players, themed shows and bar-prov. See it all. What you will learn is immeasurable and something no teacher can teach you.

9. Don’t take classes at all the theaters at once

I know some people might argue with me on this point, and that’s okay. This is just my opinion. Each theater has its own unique and wonderful form of improv theology, and they do not always mesh. In the end, they do, because you take all of it and synthesize it into your own style of play. But at the beginning, it will only confuse you-- and perhaps more importantly, you’re cheating yourself. You only get the experience of being a student at each theater for a short time. Life is very long. Take your time. Enjoy.

10. Stay home if you’re sick

Seriously. Don’t risk getting everyone else sick. A lot of folks have jobs that depend on them being there to make money to pay rent. Just rest up and make the class up.

11. Check your emotional stability

Make sure before you come to class that you’re not too emotionally raw. Sometimes a bad break-up means you should sit the next term out. Sometimes it can heal your heart to push forward. Only you can decide. But since teachers can’t outlaw certain topics in the classroom (while we can talk about them with sensitivity), you have to be prepared for whatever may come flying out of someone’s mouth.

12. Get the f*@k up on stage

It’s your cash. It’s your time. Get up there. Don’t make your teacher prod you. That stage is where you will fall down. And where you will get up. And where you will fly. Don’t leave it empty. Ever.

 13. Drink with your class

Have fun. Go see shows together. Plan potlucks. It’s all good. Just be careful not to shun someone who doesn’t join in. They may have something else going on that doesn’t allow them to participate. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to help you be a great, connected team. They do. Be nice.

14. Live a life

Go out. Get your heart broken. Have a shitty job. Eat good food. Read good books. All of this is fuel for improv fire. It’s very easy to get sucked into a life where improv is your everything, and that life is pretty great. But live a real life. Having outside interests will only make you a more interesting player. Some of my favorite students have been over 40, cancer-fighting scientists and ex-military. Their point of view was unique, and that made their scenework a little extra shiny.

15. Stay in the moment

This one is last because I think it’s the most important. It’s funny that the thing we all strive for in scenework eludes us so often in our artistic careers. But, if you can, just be in class. For that class only. Try not to think about getting better only for the sake of getting on a team or making TourCo. Those are both admirable goals-- and lord knows I wanted both (not that I got them; and that’s okay, too). Truly, the things you will love, the things you will hold onto for dear life--you don’t even know what those things are yet. So for now, don’t rob yourself of the experience of just being a student. Of playing freely. Of failing largely. Of have successes that no one of any importance saw... but that changed you for the better.


Christy L. Bonstell is a writer and performer for Second City Communications and The Second City Network, a sometime-journalist and all-time crankster. You can learn more about her at www.ChristyBonstell.com.  

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