Jill Bernard's improv teaching tips

Last weekend we had the pilot of our Teach The Teacher program!  I’ve felt like it would be great to offer improv teachers training for a long time, but I never wanted to do it, because I’m not a perfect teacher and I’d hate to crank out a bunch of Jill Bernard clones.  It’s a goal of HUGE Theater to take artists to the next step, however, and training teachers is an essential part of that.

Would you like to hear a few of the tips on teaching improv I shared?

Teach in your own style. No style is wrong as long as the students learn something of value and don’t leave feeling like shit.   For example, here’s something I learned the hard way about my own style.  There are two types of travellers, some like to have an itinerary planned down to the minute including bathroom breaks and all the tickets purchased and plans locked down.  There’s a second type of traveller that lands with just a guidebook and a few ideas and wanders at will.  I’m a dissatisfying teacher for the first group of people.  I don’t try to change to suit them, rather, I offer them books and handouts to give them the reassurance they need.

Introducing warm-ups and exercises.  It’s important not to overwhelm the students with instruction right at the beginning of a game or exercise.  Consider:

  • What’s the bare minimum to get us started?

For example, for beginners I often introduce just the “Zip” portion of “Zip, Zap, Zop” and we just pass “Zip” around until people are comfortable.  There will be a student who wants to ask a lot of questions about how an exercise works before we start.  You can say “Let’s get started, you’ll see in a second.”

  • Once we’ve played for a second, what are the pro tips/what’s level 2?

“You guys are great at Chairman/Mao, let’s add in Cat/Meow and Moo/Cow”  or “This will honestly be easier if you put your energy forward and make really good eye contact as you pass it.”

  • When we’re done, what’s the feedback/result?

“What did you notice about this game, was it hard? What makes it hard?”  “This game is a model for improv scenes – if we say YES to each other’s ideas, they grow.”

Purpose of a Warm-Up

NOTE:  Many warm-ups serve more than one purpose.

  • Energizer
  • Focus
  • Wordplay
  • Patterns
  • Physicality
  • “Our” warm up (a warm-up that the cast always does as a ritual to build team spirit and shared mindset)
  • Show specific (for example, if the show has rap, we practice rapping; if the show is very intimate we might do some intimacy exercises; if it’s improvised Shakespeare, we’ll practice Elizabethan English)

Opening Schpiel/Ground Rules

At the beginning of the first class, you’ll want to:

  • Introduce yourself and speak a little bit about your background and philosophy.
  • Set expectations and the tone for the class.
  • Explain anything technical: free parking next to the theater, bathroom and water fountain in the hall, free shows with your student i.d., etc.

Organizing a Workshop

Essentially, you’ll come up with a theme for the class and find exercises to support that objective.  The class should be divided into:

  • Warm-ups
  • Diagnostic exercises that show us what we want to study, (i.e. “yes and”)
  • Application exercises where we get to use those ideas – sometimes this means just doing scenes.


Train the students to let it wash over them.  Sidecoaches should be as short and clear and positive as possible.  If what you have to say is more than a sidecoach, freeze the scene and talk it out instead.  Avoid “choicecoaching,” instead try to train them to make their own choices.

Post-Scene Debrief

Keith Johnstone has a status trick he uses to get students to give him feedback – he sits lower than the students so that they open up.  Be direct yet gentle.  My personal preference is to get the students to talk about how the exercise went for them.  I ask them “Was it hard/was it easy?  What made it hard?”  “Was anything ishy about that scene for you?” “What did we like about that scene?”


Students report that they really like getting direct specific feedback, but there is an art to giving it without hurting the students’ feelings.  I like to remind them that we’re always talking about the work, about the improv, it’s never personal.  But the problem is it may feel personal anyway.  There are phrases that soften the blow – you can say, “It seems like…” or “From the outside it looked like…” or  Mick Napier has a way of saying, “I worry about you because…” and then giving the note.   That one’s nice because then it’s a problem you have, not the student.  Place the blame for a bad scene elsewhere – blame yourself, the carpet, the chairs, the suggestion, anything – even as a joke, it makes students feel better.

Challenging students

As you teach, you may encounter students who:

  • fight you on notes.
  • won’t participate/say they “hate” this exercise
  • teach around you because they’ve studied or performed elsewhere
  • judge other students
  • are drunk or high (send this student home immediately)
  • are looking for therapy
  • are jokey
  • are frequently absent or late or leave early or won’t come back from break
  • make others uncomfortable in scenes by being overly sexual or vulgar or making too much or unsafe physical contact (stop this scene immediately)
  • talk during other people’s scenes, or the feedback for other people’s scenes.
  • dominate the discussion during feedback
  • have poor personal hygiene

There are several choices of response:

#1: In some cases it’s important to give the note in front of the whole class so that everyone hears it and knows it’s being addressed – particularly in the case of sexual or vulgar or violent content.

#2: You can always speak to them privately.

#3: In rare cases, it is perfectly valid to ask them to leave the class.

It’s important to remember the 10,000 Things theory.  We don’t know the 10,000 things that have happened in this person’s life to make them who they are today.  They might not be deliberately disrupting the class, a conversation can clear up the misunderstanding.

Dumb basics I hate to mention

Be on time, start on time, be prepared, don’t date/sleep with your students, find energy and enthusiasm for every class.

Coming up with suggestions for the scenes

I just use the alphabet.  Algebra, Banana, Cabin, Doorknob, etc.  If you’re working on a specific exercise that requires a list of emotions or genres, prepare one ahead of time. It can be nice to let the other students yell suggestions, if it isn’t bogging things down and if they’re not using it as time to be assholes or chatty cathys.


For further reading:

Spolin, Viola. Theater Game File. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1989.

Includes a little primer in how to organize a workshop.

Gwinn, Peter, and Charna Halpern. Group Improvisation: The Manual of Ensemble Improv Games. Colorado Springs, CO: Meriwether Pub., 2003.

Gwinn does a nice job here of categorizing the purposes of improv exercises/games, and describing a bunch of great ones.

Improv Encyclopedia. Web. 03 May 2012. <>.

This website is an improv teacher’s dream, loaded with ideas for exercises.

Johnstone, Keith. Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. New York: Routledge, 1981.

Includes a discussion of teachers and status.

McKnight, Katherine S., and Mary Scruggs. The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom: Using Improvisation to Teach Skills and Boost Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.

Includes instructions on how to sidecoach.

Ronen, Asaf. Directing Improv: Show the Way by Getting Out of the Way. New York: Yes And, 2005.

Includes thoughts on getting out of the way, and some anecdotes from improv teachers.

Most regular people would say "It's hard"

Completed a project that made me really happy today – and it ended up being a lesson in Number 6 from my lessons from being a tech blog.

One of the struggles with the space is…space. And I created some today, that alone makes me happy, but the challenge of coming up with creative solutions is more satisfying than just solving a problem.

The theater is not complete yet, something that’s easy to forget since it’s up and constantly running, but there are still planned additions to the theater space, the classrooms, even some in the bathrooms. All part of the plan but still in the works as time and money allow.

But as we’ve evolved it’s been a constant struggle to just have space to put things away, as we use the entire building from wall to wall and sometimes that’s not even enough.

Plus we are always “having company over” as Jill put it – we always have the public coming, and the one day we aren’t open to the public we have classes in every free space in the building – so there’s always a finite limit of time to complete anything before everything has to be cleaned up and put away.  We have three classes on Tuesday nights, due to terrific enrollment, but only had two class spaces until a couple months ago, when I had to build another room that was long-needed anyway.  I’m still trying to create a proper class space, which is where I was working today.

Add to that the always changing resources we have on hand – we very very very very seldom purchase lumber or materials of any kind that isn’t directly related to daily operations (trash bags, etc) so anything that needs to be built, fixed or done gets done using only the weird collection of wood, metal, screws, wire and L-brackets we have on hand from whatever else I took apart or someone gave us.


We have only the tools that I have collected over the years at home – including a set I had to buy for my sculpture class in MCAD and the tool chest my dad gave me when I moved out of the house – which often leads to interesting problems. I did purchase a drill (that came with a free saw) after the one we used to build the theater died – my dad handed it down to me, I think the stamp on the side said it was manufactured in 1979.

It was a workhorse, but even workhorses die, eventually.

I have no blade for my free saw currently – it wore out.  It was the free blade that came in the free saw and the only blade I’ve been using – it’s gotten more mileage than it probably should have and I haven’t purchased a new one yet.

All of this leads to interesting construction and design challenges when trying to carve more space out of the building quickly so I can finish and get the space cleaned and ready for classes – which I decided to do by adding levels to my tech workbench in the back…with only the material on hand and no saw.

So the height was dictated by the length of the only 4 boards I had that were all exactly the same length. I had no sheet materials that fit the bill and can’t cut them to fit so the top deck is a re-purposed IKEA table that Josh Nelson donated to us before he left town.

Screwed the boards to the only wall in the room with studs, attached the table down upside down with washers I had to pull from the truss ceiling,  attached the bolt-on legs facing toward the ceiling and BOOM – it’s perfect overhead lumber storage, which added about 8 square feet to the classroom space after I was able to move lumber up off the ground and shift some things around.

the project itself was a simple one, I’m no carpenter or engineer – so the building of the object isn’t the accomplishment and I’m not bragging about my skills in that department. The best part is remembering that great solutions are possible beyond just spending money to buy some pre-fab product.

I don’t know if/when we’ll ever be in a place as a company where spending money is easier than coming up with inventive ideas and being smart about how we use what we have, but that’s a place I’m not in a rush to get to and might even avoid.

I like having to use my head and there are so many better things to spend money on than NOT having to be creative.

What Directors Want You To Know About Auditioning for Improv

This weekend we taught a class in “Auditioning for Improv” at HUGE Theater.  To prepare, I asked local improv directors for some tips, the things they wanted auditioners to know.  Here’s what they said:

1) Stevie Ray, Stevie Ray’s Improv Company:

  • Be yourself and don’t worry about the others auditioning.  Turn off the “laugh meter” which forces you to try to top others on stage.  “One of the worst outcomes of recent auditions is discovering the person you hired is not the same person who auditioned.”

2) The Brave New Student Union:

  • Mike Fotis: Just play and allow your unique qualities to stand out, instead of treating the audition like a showcase. “I’m looking for people who are ready to play and open to their partner’s contributions. Remember to listen and seize an opportunity when you see it. Above all, take your nerves and tell them to go screw themselves. Have fun.”
  • Joe Bozic: “The main thing I want is for a person to listen to and build upon their scene partner’s offers. The speech I usually give encourages them to listen and be affected by their scene partner, and use that to heighten their emotion. if that doesn’t make sense, then just forget it all and have fun playing.”

3) Frankie Manella, YesAnd Studios

  • “Although it can be useful to audition as practice and to get yourself out there… Please do NOT audition for something that if you are chosen for you cannot commit to or don’t really want to do.  I’m fine with people auditioning beyond their level and taking risks, I love that.  It’s the ones that are qualified and audition and get in and then decide it’s not for them after being notified.  It seems disrespectful and leaves a bad impression with those of us who take the time to hold and watch auditions.”

4) Hannah Kuhlmann, director of  “Star Trek: The Next Improvisation:

  • “Take it seriously. You’re not just auditioning for that particular show, you’re auditioning for that director. If you blow off the audition or act unprofessional when you’re there, you may not be considered for future shows no matter how well those future auditions go. Unprofessional behavior sticks in people’s memories.
  • Directors aren’t just looking at the quality of your performance or how funny you are. In fact, it’s really difficult to be funny at an audition. Instead of trying for laughs, focus on being castable. Show that you have solid fundamental improv skills, that you can take direction, and that you’re a good listener to other members of the ensemble and a director.
  • Make sure to follow all the pre-audition directions. They are often a test to see if you can read, write, and pay attention to simple details. For example, if the audition call says to bring a resume?  Bring a resume.  If the audition call says to wear clothes for movement, don’t wear heels.”

5) Doug Neithercott, the Artistic Director of ComedySportz-Twin Cities:

  • “Don’t be too ‘comfortable’ – even if I have seen you around, chatted with you, drank with you or more…still give me the ‘respect’ and ‘authority’ as a representative of the company you are auditioning for.
  • Show your “best” you possible – I am usually looking for someone with talent AND a great personality, so always be true to yourself but also put your best foot forward.  Look nice, be nice to other people, let your true personality shine while also showing off your talent.
  • Know that you are auditioning from the moment you step through the door – how you act at registration, during warm ups or sitting and watching can also factor in to how people perceive you and ultimately judge you.  It seems unfair, but its true.
  • Don’t showboat – Just because you get the most laughs doesn’t mean you are doing well at performing “good improv.”  Always remember the basics – who/what/where, make your partner look good, listening, etc – because I notice/look for that as well.
  • Be honest about what sort of time commitment you can make – we all want to get the job, but lying about your commitment level doesn’t help anyone!  Ask questions about when rehearsals are (if not covered), if you can miss rehearsals, how much time is expected of an individual performer, etc.  If you don’t think you can make the commitment…DON’T AUDITION.  Also be up front about other projects (ongoing or upcoming) if you know they will conflict with what you are auditioning for.”

6) Hannah Wydevan, director of “Rom Com”:

“The most common mistakes I have noticed in auditions I have run with both youth and adults are some of the following:

  • Playing to the ‘gag’ of the scene; I am much more likely to pick someone who is not being outright ‘funny’, but is playing in the real world and working with their scene partner
  • Poor eye contact
  • Focusing on the stuff in the scene instead of the who, where, why
  • Trampling other people with their own ideas
  • …improvisers who audition and may know the director will sometimes mock auditioners who are not known to be good improvisers…I have had people who are auditioning for me give me a knowing look while someone is auditioning, as if to say ‘yeah, we all know this guy sucks'”.

7) Jill Bernard, director of Beatbox-Twin Cities:

  • If it is possible to see the show or troupe you’re auditioning for, do that.
  • Really listen to what the director says at the beginning of the audition.  They should tell you exactly what they’re looking for.
  • Get your brain in a playful place on your way over, sing along to the radio or something.
  • If there is a skill that’s required (i.e. rapping, a British accent), practice that.
  • Ask about anything you’re unsure of.  There’s a lot of improv jargon that varies by theater.  For example, if they ask you to do a “montage” or a “sweep edit” and you don’t know what that is, ask.
  • If they ask you to do something at the audition that you can’t do, do it more. (e.g. singing)  Guts get you points.
  • THE CALLBACK: If they don’t tell you what they’re looking to see more of, ask.
  • If they do not cast you, remember it’s not personal.  They saw you for only two minutes.  They may have a specific need and it has nothing to do with you.
  • If at first you don’t succeed, audition again.  It can be cumulative.  The next time that director sees you, they might see a better or more developed example of what you can do.
  • You can ask for feedback after the audition, by email if nothing else.  They might not like it because it’s an uncomfortable conversation, but they owe you that.  Many directors are more than happy to talk to you about what to focus on for next time.

BONUS: Some resources for where to find auditions in the Twin Cities:

  • It’s best to get on the mailing list for the theater you’re interested in, also send an email to their general email address asking them to let you know about auditions.
  • Here’s the Google group to join:
  • Here’s a website for acting auditions mostly but occasional improv:
  • The book I recommend for the acting business in general in the Twin Cities: “The Acting Biz” by Beth Chaplin.

All Things IAGG – Lottery etiquette and process

FAQ about the lottery and IAGG guidelines:

*PLEASE send any questions that are not answered here to butch at hugetheater dot com so they can be added!*



The draw is done on 12/1, 4/1 and 8/1 at noon every year

At noon on those days a copy of the spreadsheet is generated so the entry form can remain open year round and you can enter any time – if you enter at 12:01pm the day of the lottery your entry just goes into the next round.
People ALWAYS ask about “gaming the system”
The lottery entries are always adjusted to keep the odds fair AND I do understand that there is plenty of overlap between groups – every effort is made to keep those things in mind and keep the lottery fair for everyone.
There are no penalties for groups being entered multiple times since I know sometimes each member of the group will submit or someone will submit and then have to submit again to include some conflicts – all entries for the same group are combined to capture all that information and still create only 1 entry for each group.
>> If you enter your group and then find out about conflicts or changes, go ahead and enter it again with all the new information – no problem at all ! <<
Once duplicate entries are dealt with the lottery is sorted several times to determine the average number of groups entered by any given person – that’s the “magic number”
– In the past when the magic number has been especially high (it’s been as high as 8 groups per person), people with only one entry were doubled or tripled to bring up the average low number up as well.
– anyone with more than the magic number of entries is reduced to the magic number of entries and to keep the odds fair but can put up any of their groups that were entered if they are selected
– People with a high number of groups under their name have their entries changed to their name rather than group name to indicate that they can put up whatever group they like.
– There is no penalty or rules about how many groups you can be in so if you submit two groups and someone else submits two groups that you’re also in, it doesn’t count against anyone, this is also addressed by reverting people in a high number of groups to just their name rather than group name and letting them choose which group to put up if they are selected.
– yes, I do check for fake email addresses, variations of email addresses and several other sorts to make sure the lottery is as fair and random as possible – In thirteen years I have seen it all and my only goal is to keep it fair.

– At the very end the names of groups and email addresses and everything identifying the groups is then hidden and the spreadsheet is sorted according to the random integers that everyone enters when they submit, which is the final bit of randomness before the draw.

– I use to generate a list of integers to fill as many spots as we have available for the season and those integers correspond to the row number in the spreadsheet of the adjusted, blinded, randomized entries.

– The list is then un-blinded, I send the email to let everyone (chosen or not) know the list of groups chosen and then get back to sorting all the various scheduling requests in the selected groups and putting together the calendar as quickly as possible.
Having to make all these adjustments is why the lottery is taking longer and longer each time – ultimately the odds remain the same for everyone and I know some of it is a result of an overabundance of ideas but some is still a deliberate attempt to work the odds.   I think we address it pretty well so people with lots of group ideas still have the same chance to be selected AND can put up as many of their ideas as they like without eclipsing people that only enter once or twice.


What you need to know when performing at IAGG:

– There is a mandatory pre-show meeting at 7pm. That is your call time, no matter when you are up in the show. Someone from your group needs to be there.
– When promoting the shows (And you damn well SHOULD be) please use the show name “Improv A Go Go” and start time of 8pm – not just your group name and when you go on, because you’re asking people to come for the whole show rather than just your set.
– This show has been kept running and vital by the combined efforts of hundreds of people, please join in and help. If you want a packed show, bring a big audience. Do not rely on the theater or the show or the other groups or the audience to “just be there” or they won’t be. We’ve had months of barely anyone in the seats and we’ve had months when every Sunday was packed – both are the direct result of the work groups put into it.
– Shoes are required to perform, regardless of season.
You may not perform if you are impaired by drugs or alcohol. The host/house manager will make the call on what is “impaired” if needed and any further discussions on the subject will take place no sooner than Monday morning (meaning it won’t be something we argue about on Sunday night). These are things I expect not to have to police because you are all adults. Thank you.
– Groups perform in the order listed on the calendar – which has the groups just starting their run up last/latest – unless there are scheduling needs to address.
“We would like to go on last” does not qualify as a real scheduling need.
– If you will be late for the pre-show meeting please email or text Butch as soon as you know.  Everyone has this information sent to them in the results email. No excuses.

– If I have not heard from you and your group is not at the pre-show meeting it will be pulled from the lineup and another group will perform in your place.  In the past I have attempted to call people to see if someone is on the way – if the pre-show meeting ends and I have to make that phone call it will be to let you know that you needn’t bother.
– If your group doesn’t show up and we can’t contact anyone the rest of your dates will be removed from the calendar. This has only happened a couple times in our entire history but given how many people try to get in the lottery and can’t, it is outrageous when we have a group get a spot and then just not show up.

– If you need to trade dates you may do so with any group on the calendar but please let me know so I can update the master schedule. If you need email addresses to get in touch with people, let me know.
– Please do NOT contact groups that are not on the schedule to fill in, I have a randomly-generated waitlist and replacement groups are contacted in order.

I think that is everything.



24 Non-Consecutive Hours of Improv

The important point of this blog

the Improv A Thon will now be 24-ish non-consecutive hours due to restrictions limiting the hours we can even be inside our own building.  There’s so much about that sentence that makes me furious but we have important things to cover….

Our beer and wine license (not just ours, any beer and wine license) mandates that the building be emptied from the hours of 2am-8am.  That means not even HUGE staff can be in the theater, not even if we’re locked up, closed to the public and performing for a camera that streams the event out online. Believe me, we have been trying to find an answer other than changing one of the most fundamental parts of the event.

The Improv A Thon will now run:

Tuesday the 15th, 10pm – 2am

We will vacate the theater as required until 8am

Shows resume at 8am Wednesday morning and will run until Midnight.

Please be patient with us as we completely overhaul an event on short notice.

If you would like to get some of the background of the problem, you’re welcome to read on.

If not, we will see you on Tuesday night for a massive night of fundraising for HUGE Theater.  Come help us crush Give To The Max Day.  We will make you laugh so hard you will beg for death.


We're a MN Original!!

HUGE Theater is going to be on an episode of TPT’s MN Original, a public television show that highlights local artists and arts organizations.

Date       Time        Channel

11/6/2011  6:00 PM     2

11/6/2011  10:00 PM    Life

11/7/2011  4:00 AM     Life

11/7/2011  7:00 PM     SW MN

11/8/2011  1:00 AM     SW MN

11/8/2011  7:00 AM     SW MN

11/8/2011  1:00 PM     SW MN

Our story and the full episode will also be posted on with additional content, web exclusive videos, more background and links to MN Original artists.


GUEST BLOG: Hannah Kuhlmann's Top Ten Tips for Promoting Your Improv

[We asked some local experts for their top tips on promoting improv shows.  This week’s tips are from Hannah Kuhlmann, who has worked and performed with various Twin Cities improv troupes since 2003. She teaches and directs at Huge Theater, and can currently be seen in Creature Feature and Show X and with the other two members of Splendid Things, Saturday nights at 9:30 pm through the end of October.  Hannah is also the mastermind behind many of our most exciting HUGE Theater postcard designs.]

Here are my top ten tips for promoting your improv. Do this stuff, do it early and do it right… so you can spend your time improvising instead.


GUEST BLOG: Tom Reed's top 10 ways to help improv take over the world

[We asked some local experts for their top tips on promoting improv shows.  This week’s tips are from Tom Reed who, in addition to being a brilliant improvisor, wrote and performed wildly successful one-man Fringe shows Harry Potter and the Half-Drunk Twins, Bite Me, Twilight, and Disney Dethroned: Snowcahontas and the Tangled FrogBeast.  Tom Reed blogs at and can be seen regularly at Comedy Sportz, Brave New Workshop and as crooning sensation Lounge-asaurus Rex.  Thanks for these wonderful tips, Tom!]

I want everyone in the whole world to love improv as much as I do. The first step is getting the whole world to an improv show. Based on my experience, here are 10 tips that will eventually lead to improv world domination, or at least a few more people at our shows. You gotta start somewhere!