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Directing Improv Workshops

This page is my advice on directing improv workshops. While it is written for those who have not directed before, even experienced directors might get something out of it. I believe that every director has to develop her own style of directing; this page is just meant as a starting point. Over the last decade, I've seen many different styles of direction. I've seen strength in many of them. Some people find directing comes naturally and don't fear it. They usually can transition smoothly from being a player to being a director. Others are reluctant to try it or often don't know how to begin. This is to help those who want to direct, but don't know where to begin.

Directing differs from playing. Directing an improv workshop differs from directing scripted theatre. Directing an improv workshop differs from directing an improv show. I think you can make the transition from being a good workshop director to a good show director quite easily, but you should not confuse the two.

Directing a workshop is about getting the participants of that workshop to learn by doing. As an improv workshop director, you should not be the proverbial "sage on the stage," but rather a "guide on the side." People fundamentally learn by doing—engaging in the activities. As a director, you should provide a safe setting that allows the workshop participants to do things that help them learn about improv. So, my first rule is

1. Focus on the doing

As a director, you should focus on making sure that your workshop participants are actually engaging in the practices that are being useful to them. Don't lecture; instead, guide, challenge, and focus.

In order to allow workshop participants to learn, they have to be focused and ready to learn. If you find people aren't participating, make them. For instance, tell them that everyone must participate at least once in hot spot (hot spot is a particularly contentious game; most people either love it or hate it) before ending the game. If I find people aren't participating by themselves, I'll often make it into a going-down-the-line type of game. Again, it is your responsibility to make sure people actively participate.

Complement workshop participants when you see them working particularly hard and/or making noticeable progress. Complement them on the effort, not on the scene (or them) being good. Psychologist Caroline Dweck has studied motivation for over 30 years and her research shows that feedback based on effort, rather than a successful outcome, better furthers learning. It lets people know that everyone can make progress, based upon hard work. That's what you want from an improv workshop.

2. Be on-time (or early)

I hate it when the director doesn't show up on time. Robert Lowe always shows up at least 15 minutes early. This gives him time to assess the space. I find it also gives you some time to stretch and focus before others arrive. If the director is not focused, the players won't be either.

3. Be professional

Start the workshop on-time. It is respectful to be on time. You can BS before or after the workshop. You can think about your life or make phone calls before or after the workshop. But, during the workshop, your attention needs to be on the workshop.

4. Be in charge

Directing an improv workshop is not a democracy. Don't be fooled into thinking it is one. So, don't do things like ask "so, do people want to play hot spot?" In the end, this just ends up leading to less focus and your ability to run a workshop going down. If you think it is the right thing to do, then play it. Usually if people complain or mouth-off or chit-chat, it is a sign that the group (or that particular person) is not focused. Do focus exercises until they are focused. Don't hesitate to do focus exercises in the middle of the workshop to refocus people.

5. Make sure people are thoroughly warmed-up

One trick I use is just to pick a direction, such as from feet to head, and do exercises to stretch things from one end to the other. Do physical stretches first. Don't ignore physically stretching the face, lips and tongue before moving on to vocal warm-ups. Do vocal warm-ups! I personally prefer some kind of resonance exercise to accompany tongue twisters.

6. Focus your workshop participants

The best workshops are the ones where everyone is focused on the task at hand. It is your job as director to make sure that people start out focused. Warm-up games, like red ball, go, zip, zap, zup, are great for getting people to focus. You must challenge your players. Focus is about concentrating on the task at hand. If the participants aren't doing an adequate job (i.e. their zip, zap, zup is too slow), tell them ("OK. We need to go faster.") and continue until they improve. Switch games if the one is becoming monotenous.

7. Manage the energy

This is closely related to focus. What you want is for everyone in the workshop to have a similar level of energy. If there is too little energy, play attacker / defender. If there are a few who have too much energy, tell everyone to take a few deep breaths. Taking breaths is a great way to manage both energy and focus. I don't hesitate at all to play focus and energy exercises for 30-45 minutes if that is what is needed to get everyone focused.

8. Understand your workshop participants

In addition to sensing their focus and energy, you should understand who your workshop participants are (experience, goals, etc.). While you don't have to oblige their every whim, knowing who they are and what they are looking for can be helpful in setting the direction of the workshop. Often times, you can convince the players to embrace your workshop goals. In that case, realizing that you need to convince them is an important first step.

In some situations, you will be familiar with the players and can craft an appropriate workshop without much feedback. At other times, it makes sense to get feedback from participants before the end of the workshop. I find feedback to be particularly useful if the workshop is going well; improvisers are usually more constructively reflective about a good workshop.

The above covers basics to how to run a good workshop, particularly for beginning improvisors. It doesn't tell you what to conduct a workshop on. That's up to each director. I almost always prefer a workshop that is on a specific subject or follows a certain theme than a random list of games. Again, this goes back to the workshop being a way for people to improve. It's hard to improve without a well-focused workshop. Here's some examples of good workshops and why I think they are good:

Adam's count-up workshop

The first person I've seen do this was Adam Johnson, so I'll credit him here. Basically, the format was
1. Do a 1-person scene
2. Do a 2-person scene
3. Do a 3-person scene
n. Do a n-person scene with everyone

There are several things I like about this format. First, most people play most of the time. So, it achieves rule #1. Second, it follows a simple formula. You can see where it is going. Third, you end up accomplishing something interesting. Keeping focus and avoiding cacophany (too many people talking at once) in a 4+ person scene is often impossible. With this exercise, improvisors learn how to deal with these larger scenes in an incremental way. If you just called up people for a 10-person scene, you'd probably get chaos. By increasing it slowly, the workshop participants can see how to maintain focus with increasing number of people in the scene.

My workshop on long-form basics

Occasionally, I will run a workshop on the basics of long form. I realize that long-form is difficult and often there are people attending who may not feel comfortable at such an advanced workshop. So, I try to go for incremental progress. We'll start off with freeze-tag. Then, I'll slowly alter it, by imposing more rules. I've done the following variations:
  • Freeze at inappropriate moments. Most inexperienced improvisors will go for punchlines and puns. In long-form, this is a problem. Not freezing when a punchline comes is a way to get people out of that habit, because it is not an expectation that you have to artificially manufacture these punchlines.
  • Freeze after n-seconds. I do this for the same reason as above.
  • Third person enters scene. The scene starts off with two people. At some point, a third person will enter appropriately. Then the scene can be frozen. This helps people work on entering a scene–an important long-form element.
  • Establish who, where, what. Once the people in the scene establish who they are, where they are and what they are doing, the scene is frozen. This helps focus people establish these important elements early.
  • Establish platform (who, where, what), then tilt (conflict). Again, this is useful for people to work on making good offers and establishing important elements before introducing conflict.
After working on basic exercises, then we can move into scene work.

Jynx's rotate around the circle.

When we do improvathons, there are usually way too many people for us to do single scenes for the group and still achieve Rule #1. One creative way to get around this is a method, which I first saw Matt Huber use (but apparently David Nayyar is the one to have first used it). It consists of creating two people circles, with the same number of people. Each inner circle member finds their outer circle member. They do some sort of scene, depending on what the specific workshop is on. Then, at some point, that scene is ended and the inner circle rotates, thereby allowing each person to work with a new member.

Ryan's controlled chaos worshop.

Ryan Lafitte is pretty famous for showing up to workshop without any plan whatsoever (or, even forgetting that he is running workshop). Ordinarilly, this is a bad thing. But, Ryan manages to pull it off. He largely directs by getting people to create some kind of a scene, after he yells "Go!" While this is not something I recommend for any new workshop director to direct, I do really enjoy these workshops. I find that this format allows me to challenge myself to do interesting stuff.

I also think I have it figured out why this workshop works. First, Ryan doesn't take shit from anybody. He manages to stay in charge. If he needs to, he'll shush you or even threaten your life. Second, I think he always has a good idea of the focus in the room and how to control this chaos in a way which is creatively useful. Third, Ryan plays in his workshops and is often able to get the kind of stuff he wants to happen by making it happen.

My main point with this example is that, in the end, you need to develop your own style. Ryan has developed a style of directing. It works for him. I've tried to mimmick his style before with mixed results. The style is hard to copy. This unique style of directing makes Ryan a real asset to the troupe as he brings something new to the troupe. In the end, I believe this should be your aim as a director—to develop your own directorial style that suits you artistically and benefits your troupe.

How to approach directing a workshop

1. Choose an interesting topic
Find something that the troupe needs to be working on or something that you know well and think you can direct well.
2. Tightly plan the beginning of the workshop
Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan scripts the first 25 offensive plays that his team will use. After that, he adapts to what the other team is doing. This has led to great success. A similar approach should be used in improv. Know which games or exercises you want to start off with. Make sure that you are capable of describing these exercises. Also, make sure that they can be appropriate to all the people attending workshops (including first timers).
3. Move along a learning trajectory
You need to be flexible when directing. The worst workshops I've been a part of happen when a director has the entire workshop planned and tries to impose that workshop on the players. You are a director, not a dictator. You need to adjust to your current audience: the size of the workshop, the focus level, the experience level, the mood, and the abilities. As such, I don't like workshops organized as shopping lists of games. Instead, start off following a script to see where your workshop audience is right now. Then, move the workshop in such a way that you get the most amount of learning out of what you have. You can think about exercises and games you might play, but I often find that I drop these and do something entirely different.

The more inexperienced you are at directing, the more you will benefit from spending a good amount of time planning your workshop. Nowadays, I still spend from one to two hours preparring (or, at least, thinking about) a workshop before running it.

Directing your First Three Workshops

Directing is not easy; it's a new skill that you will have to learn. It is likely that some of the people taking your workshop will have more experience than you; that can be intimidating. You may not be used to ordering others around. It's a funny feeling the first time you do it: "Who am I to be ordering people around?" That's natural. This pressure is particularly noticeable for your first two workshops. So, get those over with. To become a director, you must direct three workshops. Prepare like mad for the first one; it will give you a safety net to fall back on. Try something slightly different for your second workshop. By your third workshop, you should feel more comfortable being a director. That's when you can truly determine whether directing is something you are interested in.

Too many times, new directors direct one lone workshop and aren't given the opportunity to direct another workshop for a while. This is not a good way to learn to be a director. You need to direct three workshops in the period of about a month. That will give you the right exposure to being a director. Remember, you are a novice director; your workshops are as much about you learning as it is about others learning. You learn by doing.

Director Don'ts

These are some things I've seen that cause problems in workshops.
  • Don't impose your workshop on others. A good director makes sure that it is the right workshop for the audience. It covers the right topics in a manner which fits both the group and the state of the group (focus, energy, etc.) at that particular time. If necessary, you may have to completely abandon your plans.
  • Don't be timid. Be in charge. Be in charge and people will follow you. Be timid and the same people will eat you alive.
  • Don't be petulant. There are many ways to control a workshop. Being whiny and petulant because the workshop members aren't doing what you want them to is not a good way. If you need to, refocus people. Shout "FOCUS!!!!" Have people take deep breaths. Or, order people around. Or, shush them. Or, threaten them with violence. Or, threaten their unborn children. But, don't ever take offense and sulk.
  • Don't be unprepared. Prepared workshops are almost always superior to last minute decisions. Do not be fooled when experienced players are asked to direct a workshop on short notice. The reason the experienced players were asked is that they can be prepared. I always have some workshops planned that I can execute at little to no notice.
  • Don't rush warm-ups. Some people need a good amount of time to warm-up and become focused. As one of these people, I hate it when warm-ups are cut to two minutes of "stretch whatever needs stretching." If I'm not focused, I won't play. Sometimes, this is my fault, but the vast majority of the time, it is the director's fault.
  • Don't hold back. Directing is an artistic activity. You should be challenging yourself and your audience. You can't do that by holding back.