Our all-lady team Susan Be Anything has been performing for almost two years now. Since the team’s inception, we’ve been through two roster additions, one move to NYC, and one new baby. When the girls accepted me as their dedicated coach, I had some ideas and forms that I wanted to try – fortunately, I abandoned half of them, because few of them worked in practice.
Coaching improv is a good learning experience for growing leaders. Testing new approaches is largely costless and risk-free. And like performing improv, coaching works best when you listen closely. Here are four lessons in leadership from coaching improv.
1. Team Dynamic Before Vision
Perhaps the most important rule an improv coach should follow is to make sure everyone is having fun. Playfulness is the magical fuel for good improv. It’s important to grow as a performer and impact your audience, but improv not a sport. There is no machine-like perfection to achieve. You should practice often! Yet remember, your art will suffer if you lose sight of the fun.
In this way, coaching is not like directing. For example, early in Susan’s life we attempted a daunting form – the deconstruction. We learned two different approaches, one complex and one more simple, and practiced them for several weeks. Our deconstruction show never saw the stage. After multiple attempts, the form was not clicking with the team. It was too high-concept for a team that worked best focusing on character relationships.
If I were directing a ‘deconstruction show’, we would have kept working and put out a product. Instead, we dropped the form and moved on to a better fit: monoscenes. There we found a more appropriate challenge that everyone had fun practicing. As a coach, I traded an exhausting artistic ambition for a more joyful one. The team had a lot more fun, and we had more successes to celebrate…
2. Focus on Strengths
‘Constructive criticism’ has a valid place in teaching, but I often regret giving negative feedback while coaching. First, most improv performers already have anxieties or insecurities about performing. They beat themselves up often enough, so another negative voice can be overwhelming. Second, you will make more progress with your team by focusing on solutions, rather than problems.
Praise and a clear goal are powerful motivators. Give your performers a specific skill or objective to focus on, then limit your feedback to specific, positive remarks directly related to that objective. Some of our best practices were focused on a single skill or concept, such as character emotions. Having a clear focus and goal encourages a sense of progress.
When performances do go awry, debriefing questions are a powerful tool – you can assess a performer’s understanding of a mistake and equip them with language to own the problem.
3. Empower Ownership
One of my favorite coaching tricks is to open practice with one warm-up exercise, then ask the team to name another warm-up that they would like to run. It’s a small way to give power to your performers, and you’ll learn about their priorities in the process.
Your performers need to feel comfortable to express themselves, both artistically and as a member of the team. Frequently ask questions like ‘what did you enjoy about that form/scene/show?’, and give the team ample time to discuss changes to the team’s structure and performances. It’s valuable to explain your perspective on big decisions, like adding a new member, but you should step aside and give the team the final call.
4. Don’t Over-plan
Some of the best exercises we ran were invented in the middle of practice. If you bring strong, positive energy to coaching and an openness to new ideas, you can improvise whole new solutions for your team on the spot.
When your performers are in the middle of a scene, focus your mind on the performance patterns they are falling into. Are they doing too little object work? Do the scenes lack propulsion? Then, identify a limitation you can impose that focuses their performance on a new, desired pattern. For instance, encourage object work with the rule, ‘you must use an object at all times during the scene,’ or focus on energy with the limiter, ‘reach a point of intensity within 45 seconds.’
Staying nimble and open to new exercise techniques ensures that you are addressing your performer’s immediate growth needs.
In short, the best improv coaching brings out a performer’s best qualities, encourages them to grow, then gets out of the way.
If you’re looking for specific exercise resources and more inspiration, I recommend the books How To Be The Greatest Improviser in the Universe by Will Hines, and Directing Improv: Show the Way By Getting Out of the Way by Asaf Ronen.