How to give feedback when teaching improv

How to give feedback when teaching improv

This is about how I give feedback when teaching improv. I’m not saying it’s the right way, just my preferred way at Hoopla.

Much of this is weirdly influenced by swimming coaching. I learnt to swim front crawl properly a couple of years ago and the teacher (Dan Abel with Swim Trek) was one of the best teachers of anything I’ve ever had. For weeks he’d get me just working on one thing in isolation at a time, for instance the tilt of my head as I took a breath, or the extension of my hands into the water. On each length I only had one thing to focus on, and he only gave me feedback on that one thing. We didn’t move on until that one thing was mastered. Only after 7 weeks did we put it all together and swim complete strokes again, and I felt like a dolphin. I’d learnt to swim really well entirely by following exercises one step at a time.

So here’s how I personally look at feedback and teaching in improv:

One point of focus

I aim to give students just one point of focus per exercise. So if we’re doing game of the scene I will only focus about that and only talk about that. Even if someone is blocking something, or being too quiet on stage, I won’t talk about that I’ll just talk about game of the scene.

Then all feedback to that exercise is only in those terms of the point of focus. This is so the group stays focussed on that thing together without distraction, and the new habit can be absorbed and we can move on step by step over the course.

If there are other things going wrong in the scene we can cover those later.

For instance with my swim coach he would spend ages just giving feedback on body alignment in the water, that’s the first thing he looked at. Once I had that as a habit then he moved onto head tilt for breathing. But he didn’t give feedback on head tilt if the point of focus was body alignment.

I’ve found the opposite – giving feedback on everything missing from a scene or wrong with a scene, can be a little overwhelming for students and sometimes results in the feeling in them that no matter what they do they can’t get it right. It’s impossible to be doing the whole of improv all the time, so there will always be something you are doing well and something you are missing. However there is sometimes space to give multiple focus feedback later in a course, as long as there is later space to later work on things needed moment by moment.

Make the point of focus clear

I try and make the point of focus clear, each time a different pair get up to do the exercise. The mind can get quite noisy and students sat waiting to get up can start measuring themselves by all manner of unhelpful criteria.

So each time someone new gets up I say “we’re doing …. and I want you to focus on just ….”

If someone is confused in class it’s sometimes from trying to do all of improv all the time, rather than just focussing on one thing at a time.

Give feedback on just that one thing

I then try and give honest feedback on just that one thing. If there are other things that need work on we can save them until later. However other things done well should also be celebrated.

If they’ve got it, celebrate

If they’ve achieved the point of the exercise then celebrate it so it beds in and becomes a new habit. I also like to discuss why it went well. I think it’s important to talk just as much about what went well as what’s missing. We are aiming to do more of the behaviours that lead to fun scenes, so that’s what we can learn from. I ask them how it felt, and remind them what they did at the start of the scene.

If we reward supportive collaborative behaviour we get more supportive collaborative behaviour.

If there’s been a great scene don’t just say “great scene”, celebrate it and learn from it and use it to change the mood of the entire group for the best.

If they haven’t got it, go again

If they aren’t getting the point of the exercise I try and give one thing helpful, around the point of focus, and then get them to go again until they get it. Sometimes I might decide the whole group goes again, either straight after or another week. I’ve found the most important bit of improv, responding to what’s just been said in the present moment, is worth practicing again and again.

Don’t give negative feedback without an immediate chance to do it again

If I have to point out what someone is missing I then immediately give them a chance to do again working on that missing thing, and then celebrate once they have it. This means the behaviour can be changed there and then. Otherwise a negative note sat on for a week without action can turn into a permanent message of “I can’t do this”.

The feedback is the exercise

For many of our courses the feedback to the group is the next exercise. I’m watching what the group does, seeing what they do well and also seeing what they are missing. What they are missing I then choose an exercise for to teach that missing thing, either as the next exercise or the next week. This way people gradually improve moment by moment as a result of doing exercises. If they want to know what they are missing as an improviser, it’s in the theme of the next exercise.

The exercises we teach aren’t random, they are designed for the group to give them what we think we need there and then.

Make a game of it

I’ve found many beginners struggle with who what where in scenes. I’ve found giving negative feedback (“your scene was missing a location”) isn’t always helpful as sometimes they end up going on stage thinking improv is a checklist of things to get, and also they end up fearing being told what they are doing wrong.

So I’ve found you can flip this mentality around by making a game of it.

So two improvisers go on stage and start a scene from scratch. Three members of the audience have a balloon each, one is for where, one for who and one for what. Every time the improvisers on stage do something about where, who or what the corresponding baloon is blown up a bit. When the audience are satisfied they let go of the balloons and they fly around with a farting noise.

The focus of the improvisers now becomes postive (“let’s put in lots of fun stuff about where we are, who we are and what we are doing”) rather than negative (“I hope I don’t forget one of those things and get in trouble”).

Closed loop exercises

My favourite exercises I term closed-loop, where the learning point is wrapped up in the exercise so that the only way to complete the exercise is to really emotonally engage with the learning point.

Issue a postive direction rather than negative

Whenever possible I try to issue a postive direction (what you could do) rather than the negative (what you shouldn’t do).

For instance rather than saying “don’t block” I’ll try and say “agree with the other person’s offer as much as possible”.

The reason for this is that the easiest way to not do something is to do nothing at all. The easiest way to “not block” is to say nothing at all, and too much negative direction and the improviser eventually freezes up.

Positive direction gives people active things they can actually do on stage. They are still receiving feedback just flipped around into the postive.

If you want to remove a behaviour replace it with something else

Similar to above. Sometimes people have unhelpful behaviours in workshops that you do just have to call out, but even then it’s important to give them something else they can do instead. If you don’t give them the positive behaviour they can do instead they either freeze up or return to old habits.

Multiple practices

I try to minimise the time I’m talking so that students get more time practicing. For each new game I like them to do a practice all at once around the room first, then one on stage, then one working on anything that comes up, then celebrate.

I do the practice ones around the room without feedback as I like people to learn and get a feel for it themselves first.

Being succinct (even if this blog isn’t)

I try to be succinct with explanations and feedback. Sometimes I employ a fun captain on the course. If I go off on one and talking too much they gradually raise their arm until they are pointing at me and then say Beeeeepp. I then go back into the action.

Make the bread of your shit sandwiches thicker

In business there is a term called a “shit sandwich” which is when giving someone criticism you surround it with two praises, for instance:

“You always dress very well at work. We are slightly concerned about you shouting I hate you all non stop from 2pm to 5pm every day. You are very punctual though”

Understandably shit sandwiches have grown to have a bad reputation at work.

However the bread should be thicker and be ongoing. We should be constantly celebrating what the person is doing well, evertime they are up. Then the occasional bit of negative feedback is no longer painful, as they know you are coming from a supportive and honest place.

Increase what’s going well

My main aim when teaching is to constantly celebrate, learn from and increase what’s going well. These moments gradually expand and there is no space left in the group for the bad bits. If people are interested in character I’ll do loads about character and get enthused about it and you’ll find that game of the scene or story will pop up as a fun side effect, we can then talk about those things as they pop up.

Core Skills Practice

The things we practice in week 1 or 2 of a beginners course should be practiced all the time, even with advanced improvisers, as returning to the basics keeps us connected.

Improv is less about rules and more about behaviours

Mick Napier writes well about this.

Sometimes we are told “don’t block” as a rule. But people “don’t block” when they trust each other on stage, are having fun, and are excited about going into the unknown together. So rather than teach by rules we can instead help people to trust each other on stage, have fun, and be excited about going into the unknown. Blocking is a symptom but there’s something much deeper and more fun that we can play with instead.

Most of all for me improv is about feelings rather than the intellect, so quite often I’m aiming for someone to emotionally experience something on stage rather than sit there taking notes. That’s the spirit of improv.

That’s enough from me, hope it was helpful! Remember this is just my personal teaching style I’m not saying this is right or wrong.


Blog by Steve Roe, Director of Hoopla Impro. Improv classes and courses, shows and improv comedy club in London, UK. 

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