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  • Writer's pictureTerry Withers

IMPROV NOTES - WHAT ARE THEY GOOD FOR?

Recently I spent a little time on Improv Reddit and found myself commenting on a post from a UCB student who was getting a lot of notes in improv class they disagreed with. I spent so much time on my response, I ultimately was like, 

“What am I doing here? I have a blog. Why am I giving this great stuff away to reddit for free?”


So here is my response to that student with some extra thoughts thrown in for good measure. The student was getting the same note over and over, “not to play crazy”. Sometimes when he initiated and sometimes when he responded to initiations. 


Here are my thoughts!


Not every style is for every person. UCB may not be for you or this particular teacher may not be for you.


I’m a past UCBer who loves the institution and I’d like to share two stories with you that could help?


My wife and I started taking improv classes at UCB together (don’t fret, we were already dating when we signed up) and so we ended up in Improv 201 together. I had been in NYC for a decade at that point and had done a lot of OFF-off-broadway plays where I was generally told I was awesome and great and people loved me. 


They appreciated me. They appreciated what I brought to their productions for free, as I typically was unpaid. I was an appreciated artist!


At UCB I had a different experience. First of all, I was paying, which I regarded as a worse arrangement for me than my typical offer of, “I will work for free, but pay you nothing!” (I should have been an agent with negotiating skills like that!"


Nobody seemed to care about that, they just treated me like I was any other customer. Let me repeat that, they treated me like I was buying something from them and kept tryong to give me the thing they thought I was buying.

A genius but confused improv student, just about to take the next step or engage in an ugly confrontation!
A genius but confused improv student, just about to take the next step or engage in an ugly confrontation!

My teachers could see I was good, but they could also see I could be much better. So they noted me a lot. This was very different than what I experienced in the very many, very bad OFF-off-broadway plays I typically appeared in.


When I took 201 (in 2007) each session of the class would start with warmup scenes, one scene per student (so everyone was in two). After maybe the third class we finished the warm up scenes and my teacher said, “Okay everyone, grab a seat. Let me tell you what I liked about those.” 


Those were his words, word for word.  They are seared in my memory, because…


He then proceeded to go through all 15 scenes, one by one with copious notes for each. Never did he say, “That was good.” 


He only criticized.


A veil dropped over my eyes, it was red and I was mad. Spitting mad. To not like even one of these scenes? Not one scene?!? And bear in mind, a great OFF-off-broadway actor (me) had been in them.


A few weeks later my wife was in a scene. It was going okay, not great. The teacher started side coaching. My wife and I were unfamiliar with this practice. 


(Maybe he told us beforehand he would be doing this, maybe he didn’t. I can’t remember and it is beside the point.)


My wife started looking upset. He kept side coaching. I don’t remember what the note was, it could have easily been similar to the notes you are getting. 


My wife started to tear up.


I said nothing, because we were only dating at the time (this is a joke). 


Our teacher kept side coaching. 


My wife said out loud, “If you keep correcting me, I’m going to start crying.” 


The whole class froze!


Except for my teacher, who kept side coaching.


And then my wife dug deep, followed the notes and hit a grand slam home run. It was the best scene in the class so far. I couldn’t believe how hard I was laughing watching it.


We went home and talked about how much we hated our jerk teacher.


We called him stupid. Overrated. Delusional. I think we even insulted his wardrobe. I think (probably) that was mostly me saying things, but my wife was unable to stop me so she's complicit.


A few months later we were in 301 and we noticed something, our scenes were much better. Pitfalls were avoided, scenes were funnier. Our 201 teacher had taught us.


We signed up for another class with our 201 teacher. We hired him to coach us, just us. He became our favorite teacher.


He always had a kinda bad bedside manner with notes. His wardrobe never changed. But he taught us so much. 


He’s the best improv teacher I ever met, not necessarily because he knew the most about improv (although he might) but because as a teacher he was determined to make sure his notes landed. He was determined to teach, not just facilitate.


When you are getting notes you disagree with from a teacher you have hired to train you, I think you have to ask yourself in that situation, is it possible your teacher sees something you’re unaware of about your Improv? Is it possible that if you turned off the part of your brain that was evaluating his/her/their notes and your performance and simply followed the notes he/she/they were providing you with, might it lead to growth?


I don’t see the harm of giving your teacher the benefit of the doubt and trying your best to complete their incomprehensibly, impossible notes without doing anything else besides that.


(Note that I called their notes incomprehensibly impossible, because that's what improv notes feel like when you don't understand them. That happens for everyone, everyone struggles to understand improv notes at some point in their journey to learn the art form.)


However, it is also true that you and all students of Improv (or any discipline) should always consider which notes are useful to you and which ones are not. If you find a note to be unhelpful you can always ignore it. 


Ignoring notes you think are unhelpful is not just a power you have, it is also a responsibility you have to yourself. No one cares about your artistry more than you and so you must take steps to safeguard your artistry from the perceptions of others that may not fully understand it. No matter how celebrated, accomplished or experienced your instructor may be, they are still a human being and prone to making mistakes.


It is okay to ignore notes you think are wrong.


I’ve ignored so many notes in my life, sometimes to my detriment, but ignoring notes allows you to not get caught up in bad feelings about them. It also safeguards you from bad teachers and coaches.


Ignoring a note is not the same thing as confronting the note giver or badmouthing the note giver. If someone you hire gives you a bad note, there is no need to badmouth them, just ignore the note. If they give you bad note, after bad note, after bad note, just stop hiring them.


No need for a confrontation.


And bear in mind, if you're studying improv it stands to reason you aim to get great at it. If you do get great at it you will almost definitely teach and coach at least a little yourself. And when you do you'll make mistakes and give bad notes and you'll appreciate people not hanging you out to dry over it.


You can always ask questions of course, but when questions aren’t asked from a place of curiosity but instead a place of ego, teachers and other students can tell. I know because I was a student who sometimes thought he should question notes he disagreed with.


I’ll never forget one practice I had with my Harold team at UCB. Our coach was amazing. Next level. You’d drool if I told you who it was.


Anyway, I did a scene for this bozo and he was like, ‘Hey Terry, can you dial that down a little?”


Those weren’t his exact words, but that was the note. I was too involved in the scene, my ideas, my DNA, my impact was more than what was appropriate.


“How could that be?” I wondered aloud, when I didn’t even initiate the scene? The initiation had established the full base reality, I had just made it hilarious? Didn’t we want our scenes to be funny?


Our coach explained patiently to me, that my partner felt not listened to. That her initiation had little to no impact on what I said next and that it seemed like I didn’t fully trust my teammates.


DING DING DING DING DING!


That was spot on, I didn’t trust my teammates. Too often, I felt, far too often, in my opinion, their scenes weren’t as funny as I thought they should be. (What an indictment!)


I really was a terrible teammate.


Anyway, that note shook me. I carried it around with me for three years. I told other improvisers about it all the time under the heading of: CAN YOU BELIEVE THE CRAZY IMPROV COMEDY NOTE I GOT WHERE I WAS TOLD STOP BEING FUNNY?


And then one day, when I was onstage, the note clicked. I was getting ready to be hilarious, because I was worried the show wasn’t going well, when I suddenly saw that if I just moved a little slower there would be more space for my teammates to help me.


Level up. That was a level up moment for me. I still wasn’t great (still not today), but I was better and I had been holding myself back fighting that note.


I sometimes wonder what my development would have been like if I had simply ignored the note instead of fighting it. I think maybe it would have clicked sooner because when I say ignore I don’t really mean ignore. I mean don’t fixate. 


Hear the note, if you don’t understand it or disagree with it, fine. It isn’t an emergency. Put it down and trust the elegant computer in your head will make sense of it for you in time in conjunction with everything else you are learning about the art form and yourself.


I think if I had done that with the note in question I would have understood it much sooner.


When a teacher or a coach tells you something you don’t understand, they have failed you. But you have failed you too. Communication relies as much on the receiver as the transmitter.


There is no shame in not understanding a note! There is no shame in ignoring a note! There is no shame in working with a teacher or coach whose notes sometimes confuse you. 


In fact, I don’t know anyone who is good at improv who wasn’t at one point confused by their favorite teacher. True, I don’t ask people whether they were confused by their favorite improv teacher very often, so I am working with a limited data set. But right now, as I type this, my statement is 100% true.

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3 comentarios


Duane Solem
Duane Solem
26 jun

I had a director of an acting company I was in (I won't name) but the director was ruthless with notes; old-school, had worked with Bertolt Brecht. One time the director shouted, in a rehearsal "You are SHIT, get off the stage!". Another time shouted "Stop being a teenager! I don't have time to teach acting!" Everyone understood the notes directed at them. It was a little like being in the marines....you had to just take it. And understand what the note meant. Pretty amazing learning experience. No chance to feel sorry, just fix what was wrong. The amazing brain knew what to do.

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gordon deng
gordon deng
25 jun

Great post! Completely agree as well! I often hear comments from other students saying if improv is completely made up, then why are there rules. I believe this also applies to jokes. There are jokes, and then there are funny jokes. The punchline should come after the setup....unless you're Carnac the Magnificent.

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george.king.514
25 jun

Completely agree...if im here to learn, I want notes, I want to improve. Listening is not only for the scene but for after the scene as well

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