Coaching inspiration, part 1

When I was actively performing and directing theater, I found that every ~4 years I'd learn that everything I knew about theater was wrong.

Improv revelations have been more evolutionary than revolutionary, but if anything at a faster pace. This post is attempting to describe my latest thoughts about coaching improv based on some recent reflections.**

Coaching IMO comprises three main activities:

  • Helping a team define or refine their style and goals
  • Designing and compiling exercises (possibly forms) to push the team closer to those goals
  • Giving notes and challenges

The trouble with notes


The challenge of notes is the limitation one coach's power. Yes I can give a team notes. But how many improvisers write them down, review them before rehearsal or a show, let them sink in and change the way they play? And if they change that improvisor's behavior for one rehearsal or one show, will the next change build on the last? Or get thrown out the window when she changes something else?

I was the improviser who wrote a lot down. And it just got me in my head. I was playing from a place of obligation. I was trying to dance around a litany of notes rather than playing from a place of inspiration. I was owned by my head and not my gut. I still play that way some times, in some situations. But I have tasted and seek the freedom of playing from inspiration. And it has encouraged me to think differently about coaching others. 

So what would replace notes?

If notes put me into a place of obligation, then what is a reasonable alternative?

1: Train your instincts

First, I had to shift my point of view. Let's think of practice as a place to train instinct and performance as a place where performers trust and run on instinct. Rehearsal is swinging two bats, and the show is all muscle memory. I don't believe there is any value to thinking about anything a teacher or coach has said while you are on stage. On stage, shorten the distance from head to mouth (or foot or jumping hug). On stage, every move is the correct move. That is not lip service. That is truth.

This is a hard concept for me to explain to new groups (or old groups!). Because you may still make a move that we (you and I, us as a team) will talk about afterwards. Or that you will think about and wish you had done differently. That does not imply you should have done it differently in the moment. You followed your gut and that is always correct. In the long run, those conversations and reflections ideally help to re-calibrate your instinct. 

The one thing we can't recalibrate is moves you don't make. Sometimes I will have players who will say something like, "Yeah I really wanted to... (edit there/make this move/enter as your grandma)." Those are moments where they either didn't trust their instinct or thought of a better idea later. Hard to do much about either. If you can make it through a 20 minute set trusting all of your instincts, you will not only be a better improvisor, but I think you will feel you have already reaped dividends from your time and monetary investment in improv.

More on this next week. This post is already long.

**Two caveats: 1) Coaching takes many forms. If I am coaching a practice team of new students or subbing someone else's team, this may look different. 2) I am not prescribing this as the way anyone else should coach or saying I'm the best coach. I've gotten both positive feedback and constructive criticism on this style of coaching. This is just offered as my thoughts on my coaching.