We want to be consistently excellent on stage, but we are often afraid to do the work it takes to get to that level. I wonder what would happen if we trained for improv like athletes train for games.
Originally posted on the amazing improv blog People and Chairs.
Note: this post is on improv comedy; not that useful for non-improvisers. 🙂
On a couple of occasions recently, I have had conversations with fellow improvisers about how improv classes and workshops tend to function, and how we train in our art form in general. In my experience, a standard rehearsal/class/workshop goes like this:
Get feedback from your instructor.
Have some chuckles.
Go home, with a note or two to work on.
The value of this work is highly contingent on your instructor, how many notes you get, and how open and able you are to improve.
When you think of Olympic or professional athletes, they train on a daily basis, conditioning their bodies for long periods of time to get ready for their event/game day. As an athlete, you don’t just play your sport or practice your event; you work all the muscles in your body by cross-training in the gym, outdoors, or with a trainer. You use plyometrics to be able to move explosively on the field/court/etc. You weight train. You memorize and run plays, and watch tapes to think strategically. You circuit train.
We want to be consistently excellent on stage, but we are often afraid to do the work it takes to get to that level. I wonder what would happen if we trained for improv like athletes train for games. Thinking along this line, I would like to propose a first draft of a potential training regimen for a group of improvisers, and see if anybody would be interested in testing this out with a group (or, alternately, if there is any interest in me running some free classes to see how the damn thing would work). The caveat is: you would have to regularly go through this routine, without falling back on traditional coaching. Then, track the results on stage.
Just like any training routine, this is far from the only way to do it, but I wonder if we start thinking differently about the work we do before we are on stage, how much better our performances would get? What other routines could we add? What if we trained three times a week, with different circuits every time?
The focus here is on physical activity, memory, stagecraft, speed, trust, and elemental scene work. The circuit should be repeated over and over until the end of class, with no break. If preferred, it can be repeated for the majority of class, then a quick break, followed by scene work and an evaluation. If everybody isn’t exhausted after class, then something is being done incorrectly. Participants should have water readily available, and wear comfortable clothes.
Improv Circuit Training Routine
Ten stations, 30 seconds per station. Each station has a large sign indicating exercise (as per below).
Each player should do as many full circuits as possible. Coach is to hold timer and shout (or signal/buzz/ding) at 15-second intervals and 30-second intervals.
Half of the improvisers rotate clockwise, half counter-clockwise. All players should be partnered up, which may mean adjusting flow and number of stations. Ultimately, you are going through each station with a partner, who will switch for every exercise.
Burpees to failure for 30 seconds for both players as follows:
Push-up to plank to full standing up. Jump and slap your knees. Repeat. No rest.
Player 1 shouts proper first names at Player 2 for 15 seconds. Then switch. No pauses, must be as fast as possible.
Alternating trust falls. No pause. As fast as possible.
Two 15-second scenes. Must establish proper names, who, what, when, where, emotional state, and commit to an action in the environment as early as possible in the scene. Player 1 initiates first scene, player 2 initiates second.
Both players put both hands over the centre of their chests and stand four feet apart. Breathe in deeply and slowly three times. Slowly open your eyes. Keep breathing. Focus on breaths and maintain eye contact.
Player 1 makes faces at Player 2, as many as possible, for 15 seconds. Switch.
Both players face each other and rotate hips in a circle, keeping upper body still. Speak at the same time (i.e. “two-headed expert”). Nobody may lead. It may not make sense, that is fine. Keep rotating hips throughout.
Player 1 is given an emotion by Player 2 and must do a 15-second silent dance routine based on that emotion. Fully and seriously commit. Switch.
Player 1 gives 15-second monologue to Player 2. Player 2 consistently gives notes on posture and facial expression to ensure Player 1 looks as actorly and kingly/queenly as possible. Switch.
30 seconds of Shakespearean dialogue with accents (accents may be whatever). All while doing squats to the best of your ability. For squats, keep arms straight out in front of you. Tighten abs and core, chest out, head up. Bend knees and lower until you are at least at a 90-degree angle. Should dip straight down, and feel it in your quads and butt.
Back to Station 1
Photo of Basketball Wounds by Aaron Strate.