How to create a supportive atmosphere for improvising
Quite a few people say there is a very supportive atmosphere at our workshops, which is very nice of them so thank you very much. This is largely due to me being lucky enough to be taught impro by John Cremer, who is great at creating a supportive environment and is probably one of the best teachers of anything I’ve ever met. He also gives whole chapters of his book Improv to creating the right environment, I can recommend reading it.If you’re directing a show, teaching a group, running a workshop, or getting some people together to practice, there are some concrete things you can say and do to create a supportive atmosphere where impro flourishes, and you can take responsibility for the atmosphere in the room.
Setting the scene before starting the workshop
Get the group together and don’t start talking until you have their attention and they are all present.
Get everyone to say their name and give them a warm round of applause just for being there, to let them know they are accepted by the group. People spend a lot of energy trying to be accepted by the group, so you want to make them feel accepted straight away so they can use that energy on other things.
I don’t always ask what improv people have done before in front of the group. I found that going around saying what improv people have done sometimes creates a status hierarchy right at the start, which really isn’t helpful. The beginners might feel alienated and inadequate, and the experts put themselves under pressure to be good. Instead I find it helpful to say that it doesn’t matter how little or how much impro you’ve done as we’re working on new things together, to try and get people on an equal footing and working together.
Announce that this is the team of the day, and get people to say hello altogether to their team of the day. This takes the focus and pressure of the individual, and puts their focus on the group. Again it makes people feel accepted and equal with the group. Break up groups of people that already know each other and get people together as one new team.
We have an atmosphere of safety, trust and support (John Cremer goes into this in more detail).
The good news is that you don’t have to be clever or funny – another John Cremer quote. Again take the pressure off the individual and get them focussing on the group. Impro is about working together as a team, it’s not stand up, and you are working together to build on each other’s ideas to create something beautiful from scratch. Too much pressure on being individually clever or funny on each line and people freeze up.
It’s impossible to get impro wrong, or right. It’s what you come up with in the moment. ‘Right’ or ‘wrong’ don’t really have any meaning for me with impro. Again encourage people to stop striving to try and get it ‘right’, and instead relax and play in the moment with their attention on other people.
Mistakes are your friend. If someone makes a mistake we tend to laugh, so embrace mistakes as the worse thing that can happen is that people laugh, which is what you want to happen anyway. Mistakes can send you off on adventures, give you story, game. So don’t fear mistakes. People getting impro ‘right’ on stage can be boring, so let yourself make mistakes.
There are no reviewers, critics or judges in the room. We’re not going to give you a report card at the end of the workshop. There is nothing you can do or say that would make us think “that’s a bit odd”. People open up when there is a non-judgemental atmosphere, so you might as well remove this judgement at the start.
You have permission to play and have fun. When people are getting drunk they give themselves permission to let their hair down. You can also just give permission and make it clear that a workshop is a safe place to be yourself.
We have an atmosphere of collaboration, not competition.
Listen and See, Say Yes And, Commit. This is from John Cremer originally, and I still find it really helpful. It gives people other things to focus on rather than the pressure of being clever or funny.
Tailored Warm Ups
When warming up a group I’ve found it’s good to work on the thing that’s really missing from the group that is still needed for a supportive atmosphere. Every group has an overwhelming ‘feel’ at the start which you can use and work off.
If they’re all looking a bit scared and nervous it’s good to start with some silly games to get them having fun. It’s also good to get them celebrating mistakes and having fun with them, so they don’t take it so seriously. Playing volleyball is fun, where if the ball is dropped everyone cheers. Or Big Booty where people run round the circle when they cock up as a lap of honour. Eventually people realise it’s only impro, only games, and it can be quite liberating.
If the group aren’t really paying attention, are talking over the top of introductions, or being a bit cocky/individual it’s good to start with seeing and listening games like mirroring so that they put their attention on listening and seeing and working with the other people in the room. Get people working with people they don’t already know, so the group balances out in energy.
If the group have trust issues then play a trust game first thing. A good one is when pairs walk around with one with eyes closed and another with a chair behind them so the person with eyes closed can sit down when told. Giving people responsibility for looking after each other will generally increase trust in a room.
I was lucky enough to have a great drama teacher (Miss Price) at High School and the first thing she did in the first class was climb up to the top of a tall ladder and jump off with us catching her. She then said that she trusted us, lay down the rules of the class that she trusted us to follow, and from that point on it was the only room in the entire school where we could come and be ourselves without fear.
If people are looking a bit shy still after first warm ups, which often happens when nobody knows each other, I usually do a spontaneity game like listing a load of random words in time to a click. It’s good to do this in pairs with one person listing words and another saying YES and supporting them. It’s also good if I do an example my first – all manner of weird stuff comes out and I make loads of mistakes, which gives people permission to let out things in the room without fear of personal judgement. When people first open up and list words/stream of consciousness all manner of stuff comes out. We’ve absorbed so much in our lives – TV, film, internet, school, books, work, conversations, family, experiences – that when we first open up it’s no surprise that various levels of rude words, scatalogical references, sex, death, violence, religion, mothers and fathers etc come out. To create a safe and supportive atmosphere we have to have no judgement on the person, and let it out without judgement, as underneath is the really cool stuff. If we feel like we can’t say something, for any reason, gradually everything else freezes up too. It’s not psychoanalysis, it’s just impro.
General things when teaching a new game or exercise
1. Don’t always ask “who doesn’t know this game”? The person who doesn’t know the game is most likely the complete beginner, so this question only serves to alienate them and strengthen the feeling that there is an us and them within the group. You’re always looking for opportunities to unite the group as one, not isolate people.
2. Explain the game clearly and succinctly. Give one clear objective so people have something to focus on.
3. Do an example using yourself. By putting yourself in the firing line and allowing yourself to make mistakes in front of people you give permission for others to do the same. Admit vulnerability, and places were you weren’t sure yourself.
4. Get everyone to play all together, without giving feedback or critique. Whenever people first learn something they learn more by just doing it a few times first without critique, rather than being interrupted every step of the way. Critiquing their first attempt of an exercise gets in the way of their own ability to learn from their own mistakes, and can prevent self-reliance in improv.
5. Get people to do it on stage.
6. Praise the things that they are doing really well. We want to keep the things people already do well, and if we don’t mention them they will vanish. Turn up the volume on the good stuff as a priority.
7. Give feedback on the bits that weren’t going really well. Rather than just pointing out what was bad/didn’t work, give them something to actually focus on instead. You can’t just ask people to stop doing something that’s destructive, they need something constructive to focus on instead and replace the original behaviour with.
8. Get them to do it again on stage immediately after feedback. This is really important to me. Feedback without action is wasted, and feels likes negative criticism to the actor which they can’t really do anything with until weeks/months until their next workshop, by which time it’s forgotten. Doing it again straight after feedback mean it’s bedded in and the new positive behaviour is reinforced.
9. Give them a round of applause and celebrate the bits that went well from the new thing they were focussing on. Applaud technique, not content.
Don’t correct content, only technique. Correcting content suggests there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thing to say in impro, which eventually leads to people not trusting their impulses and instincts and destroys self-reliance in the performer. Correcting content is the fastest way to put an internal editor/judge in someone’s mind. For instance rather than giving the direction “ride the unicycle” give the direction “use something you had at the start but haven’t mentioned for a while”. The first direction is specific to that scene only, the second teaches reincorporation which is universal to impro and will also encourage the greater learning leap.
Protect personal safety at all times. Sometimes people get carried away, and actually do push or pull people when they are doing a bank robbery for instance. Just stop the scene and move on to the next scene, no matter where the story is. Remind them that it’s only impro, they aren’t really in a bank robbery. Safety and trust is always more important than the story or scene, so sacrifice the scene and the message is clear that people look after each other in impro.
Don’t loose your temper or patience as a teacher/director – suddenly people will think it actually matters and bad things will happen if they get it wrong. It’s only impro, it’s really not that important.
Don’t let other students direct or give feedback in a workshop. They are only trying to be helpful, but it signals to the performers on stage that they are in an unequal space of judgement rather than an equal group working together as one. This is different for show groups, where every now and again people will have to have a safe place to give feedback to each other so they can progress as a group.
Sometimes people look defeated when given the slightest bit of direction. Remind them that they are learning something new and can’t expect to master it straight away, and it’s not a personal thing, it’s just a stupid impro exercise. Eventually they start having fun making mistakes and realise it’s just part of learning. If you signed up for an 8 week high diving course you wouldn’t be doing triple back somersaults from the top board on your first workshop.
Encourage collaboration not competition.
Be aware that it can feel unnatural to people when they learn something new. In Alexander Technique if someone stoops forward usually when walking, when they are corrected to walk upright they initially feel like they are falling backwards. Similarly if someone needs to speak up it will feel unnaturally loud to them at first. This can be used in impro and directions like “over accept”, “reincorporate to a ridiculous level” or “put in as many objects as possible” can be really helpful as it stretches people and snaps them out of their default.