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  • Writer's pictureTerry Withers

How Can I Get Better At Improv?

If you get bit by the improv bug, then you can count on becoming obsessed with one simple question: “How can I get better at improv?” 


Practice. The best answer to the question “How can I get better at improv?” is practice. 


It's a true statement but one that deserves some unpacking. Let's take a look at what it means from left, right, front, and center.

How Can I Get Better At Improv?
A simple graph I made with which to chart my growth as an improviser. Feel free to use it.

WHY PRACTICE?


Since improv is all about making scenes up on the spot, with no planning or preparation, it can sound sort of strange to tell younger improvisers that they need to practice. Isn't improv the one thing you aren't supposed to practice? 


No, improv is like a sport. Practicing is critical to being good at it. While practicing basketball on Wednesday won’t tell you exactly what will happen in Friday’s game, it gets you ready nonetheless by familiarizing you with the game’s speed, athleticism and mechanics.


When I was a student at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre we were reminded of this truth frequently. A common sentiment was that practicing improv once a week and performing once a week was not enough. If you really wanted to get good at it you needed to commit to multiple practices and performances a week for a prolonged period of time.


Years.


As you might suspect, the amount you need to practice in order to “get good at improv” varies depending on

  • Who you are

  • How you define being good at improv


Irritatingly, some of us are naturally better at improv than others. For such individuals practice is less important. But even though practice’s importance diminishes with natural talent, the general relationship between the two does not change;


The more a naturally gifted improviser practices, the better they are at improv. The less they practice, the worse they are.


REALITY CHECK: You might think you are such an individual, a naturally gifted improviser without a sustained need to practice. Are you sure? It’s fine if you are, but if you’re wrong, well, the worst improv performances I’ve seen have been delivered by people who mistakenly thought their natural talent made extensive practice a waste of time.


The other defining factor is how you define being good at improv. If your goal is to become comparably good to an improv super hero like Keegan Michael-Key or Tina Fey, then get ready to practice, practice, practice. It might be true that you’ll never get to be as good at improv as those two are no matter how much you practice, but to get even into their vicinity you’ll need thousands of hours of practice.


If, on the other hand, you simply want to slightly improve your ability to speak extemporaneously without freaking out, then you don’t need to practice that much. A practice once a week or even once a month might be enough for you. Or maybe you simply want to survive a class show? Your once a week class should be enough for that.


So your own goals in improv should determine how much you practice, and not surprisingly, the more ambitious you are the more you will need to practice to reach your own goals. And it is totally fine to maintain humble goals! 


SET REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS


Let’s say you were someone who wanted to be really good at improv. For the smartest, most naturally gifted improvisers among us, that is a multi-year goal. Yet people who would describe themselves as only so-so at improv will sometimes confide in me that they are frustrated they aren’t already much better… just a year into improvising. 


I suspect the feeling is more widespread than has been revealed to me personally and I’ll confess that I have often had it too. Wanting something may help you get it, but it’s like Jean Terrell says, you can’t hurry love, you just have to wait. And while that’s very hard, waiting for love (especially when you want it right away) it is still a fact that there are no songs about rushing love real fast on Casey Kasem’s Top 100 Motown Hits.


And there is a reason for that. Good things come to those who wait. In improv we might say, good things come to those who practice improv while waiting.


People don’t always like that aspect of improv. I suspect that’s because when they ask “How can I get better at improv?” what they are really asking is, “How can I get much better at improv by tomorrow?” 


The answer to that question is, you can’t. Getting better at improv requires too much practice to cram it in just a day.


While we can all have empathy for a first year student who is desperate to perform improv as expertly as a ten year vet, we mustn’t encourage unrealistic expectations. Because when things get hard (and there will be bad classes, bad shows, awful scenes) unrealistic expectations can threaten the entire learning process. The sudden discord between how good a student thinks they are and how good they actually are can deflate the most promising improviser.


The good news is, it is okay to be exactly as good at improv as you are today and there is no way to become very good at improv without first being very bad at it. No matter how good you get, there will always be someone much better and someone else much worse. The difficulty of improv makes the pursuit of it fun and worthwhile, but comparing yourself to others makes the art form toxic.  


Setting realistic expectations allows you to take the time you need to improve and sets you up to become a much better improviser than someone who goes into the art thinking they’ll be quickly great, or even proficient, at it.


START A PRACTICE GROUP


The best way to be able to schedule a lot of extra practices is to start a practice group. Practice groups are typically formed among groups of 6 to 10 individuals of similar experience levels. If no one has asked you to join a group, it’s no big deal to be the person who starts one.


Practice groups are often an economical way of getting reps in as the per session fee for each student is typically far lower than the per class fee for each student. By grouping together students with similar learning goals, you can cut down on coaching and room rental fees while arranging for practice sessions that target skills everyone in the group needs. Although online groups are more common following Covid, in person practice groups are better.


Asking fellow students to join your group is a good way to find new members. Attending indie shows or class shows to see who you think is fun is another good way. Be on the lookout for Church basements, restaurant/bar back rooms and community center all purpose rooms you can rent for your practice group.


Practice groups most often meet once a week for 2-3 hours, but I’ve seen groups meet more and less frequently. Sometimes a practice group will have a large membership, 15 or more people, but with groups so large typically only a percentage of that number will show up weekly.  


If you join one group and like it you may want to be a part of more than one practice group. Great! Do it!


After a bit you may decide a certain practice group is no longer worth your time. This is no big deal and nothing good comes from treating it like a big deal. Depending on your group’s culture, either inform the group that you are taking a break for a bit or if you think it would be cool (as it would be with a practice group of 15 or more casual attendees) simply stop attending.


START A PERFORMANCE TEAM


Often people will hope their first practice group will become a performance team. Nothing wrong if it does and nothing wrong if it doesn’t. The most important thing is to honor the will of the entire group, so be sure to share your preferences while checking and really listening to the preferences of everyone else in your group.


Whether your first practice group becomes a performance team or not, you’ll want to create a performance team that performs frequently if your goal is to become good at improv. Most experienced performers will tell you that one performance helps you grow more than one practice. Some say a show is worth two practices, others four.


I’ve heard some say a single 20 minute show is worth ten practices!


That's because so much of what we’re struggling with when improvising is nerves. Performances tend to put your nerves on adrenaline, so improvising in a practice after a show feels easy! The more shows you do, the easier they become too.  


Ultimately performances are just another form of practicing improv. For that reason it is important to get feedback on your performance in shows if you want to get better. Hiring a coach who watches your set and gives 10-20 minutes worth of notes afterwards is a fantastic way to maximize the learning impact of shows.


Sometimes performers will complain about notes after shows, pointing out that receiving notes makes the experience less fun. They aren’t wrong, it is less fun to hear how you messed up after a show. So you have to decide, are you doing these shows for fun or in order to get better at your art.  


More experienced performers will sometimes adopt a stance of wanting to get better at improv but not being able to find anyone capable of noting their shows… There just isn’t anyone advanced enough to note them.


This is nonsense of course, I’ve had first year improv students give me notes and benefited from their observations even though I was a UCB teacher at the time. Sure some of the notes may be off, but if you’re really as good as you think you’ll be able to understand those incorrect notes through the lens of inexperience they are being warped by and take value from them.


For all of these reasons, scheduling performances is an important part of getting good at improv and not a challenge to avoid at all. The sooner you perform improv in front of an audience, even awful improv, the sooner improv will become easier for you.


IMMERSE YOURSELF IN IMPROV


When not in practice or onstage, thinking about improv can help you improve.  Here are some easy ways to think about improv offstage:



I hope this post was useful to you! Feel free to reach out with any suggestions or questions!

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