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. <http://improvencyclopedia.org/>.

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.