An Improv Instructor Prepares

Learning while teaching, part I

4 min readJul 10, 2021

This is a three-part series about how I prepare for classes

  1. Learning while teaching
  2. The Books I Recommend
  3. My Secret Training, Revealed!

A long time ago, when I still wanted to be the best improviser in town, I watched everybody else with a critical eye. I was incredibly competitive, and looking for weaknesses, and spotted a pattern.

When people got complacent, they would perform poorly. Go too long without practice and you got slow; play the same games with the same group and you got lazy and uninspired. Worst of all, if all you did was eat sleep adn breathe improv, you got worse at improv because you forgot how real people walked or talked or lived or loved.

I realised the only way to fight off the rust would be to practice regularly. There was no way for me to perform more, so I honed my slight edge by teaching regularly — getting in extra time to learn and hone my own concepts.

I: Iron Rusts

But you can get rusty while teaching too. After a few months, you learn the syllabus, you know all the exercises and the familiar patterns. You get lazy with the explanations, in the name of having students ‘figure it out’ and ‘deal with uncertainty’.


You can get complacent. It’s probably true that as an instructor, you will have forgotten more than the beginners will know. That’s kind of the point — they know nothing, and you want to bring them to your level.

It’s all too easy to make up a half-formed game, an incomplete idea, and call it an exercise. Sometimes that’s just game development; but sometimes you phone it in. But then you get bored, and the students feel that too.

II: Iron Sharpens Iron

I once had to teach a class with actors in it. Proper, hard-working actors with method acting training and professional performance experience. People who were performing more often than I was, people who had more stage time that I had been alive for.

You can’t bullshit them on technique. They’ve read more Stanislavsky than you — and worse, when you quote Laban’s movement theory at them, they’ve memorised all eight and where they lie along the axes.

This is a visual pun. “Axes”.

How do you deal with that?

I once had to deal with a class which was extremely international and so struggled with English. One person had a thick accent. One person was deaf in one ear. Two people were speaking English as a second language.

How do you deal with that?

I once had a diligent student. She read all my articles beforehand and read improv books on her own. She took notes in class and asked me about concepts I hadn’t taught yet. She even remembered exactly which exercises we had run in the class, and asked me about ones I hadn’t talked about yet

How do you deal with that!?

Spoiler alert —the hardworking student was a delight to have in class. An organised, administrator type to keep track of things and serve as an external brain. And she was curious, and made me want to unravel more.

The international class forced me to throw away all the word games, the silly gimmicks, the rhyming stuff. And that made me have to read more, research more, find new games and try to explain concepts using simpler, more common words.

The class of actors was actually easier to teach. I didn’t have to spend time teaching them how to be human, to show emotion, to talk like people; in fact they loved to talk. Suddenly, the dialogue was elevated, everything felt smooth and we could work a lot on scenework and let characterwork develop along the way.

I turned my competitive nature to my students — I had to be one step ahead of them, plan one more twist they didn’t see coming. And that forced me to be a better instructor.

III: Ironic

I remembered why I love improv. I like playing games, silly games, stupid games, games that make you laugh, games where you’re not supposed to laugh. I love seeing people play games, and creating new games.

I used to love researching these things. I once slogged through an incredibly messy book about South American theatre about maskplay and oppression before I found one beautiful nugget of gold, an exercise called Columbian Hypnosis, amidst distractions about Haitian voodoo and zombies.

Putting in extra effort to prepare, looking for new resources or additional teaching materials actually made me more excited to research and prepare more.

Iron rusts, and iron sharpens iron, but ironically I’ve become those electric razors that sharpen themselves with every cut.

Stay sharp. Be stainless steel.

This was inspired by a 30 in 30 challenge.




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