Coaching inspiration, part 2

In coaching inspiration, part 1, I discussed my motivation to change my coaching style from giving notes that I felt in my own work were not motivating me to improve in the long term. Here's part 2:

2: The only one who can teach you is you

In my experience, my real breakthroughs have come when I am on stage feeling for the first time what it is to improvise a certain way. I have had some really great discussions with experienced players, I've had some great and inspirational teachers, and I've read some amazing books. But for me, I really learn when I have digested that, actually changed my work in some way or another (started walking the walk), and start feeling the impact on my scenes. Sometimes (often?) I will feel like I really get something logically from reading it or discussing it, and it's only years later when I make a move on stage that the gears click into place and I realize that I am just now truly understanding it.

So that mindset raises the question: how can we as coaches encourage others to grow? 

Well, it shifts the focus from my opinion of a team's work being important to their opinion of their own work being important. Opinions are like assholes (everyone has one), especially about something like how an improv set went. Whereas traditional scene-by-scene notes might give a team an impression of the former, I will now lean toward asking a team about their opinions of a set. The hope is that over time they will develop a sense of what inspires them and how to create the necessary environment for their own fun more consistently. The show felt great? Why? What felt great? What were you doing that led you to that feeling? What could you do again to more consistently replicate that great feeling? Another show felt shitty? Why was that? What choices do you make that lead you to feeling one way or another?

A few caveats here: I do still note technical misunderstandings (e.g. when to use a tag versus a sweep), form issues (e.g. how is the opening intended to go), and individual find blindspots. In these cases I follow the advice in Directing Improv as much as possible (too much good stuff to reproduce here). Most of my notes I keep for myself. These help me build a rehearsal (or many) with the goal of training the instincts of the performers over time.

Does this work? TBD. I find that I have been much more successful at getting teams to make lasting changes. I also get feedback that some (many) players struggle to grow when their only feedback is self-reflection. 

Beyond Yes And: Information that Matters (part 3)

In part two of the Beyond Yes And series, I talked about players digging the same hole in the beach–adding information that is moving the scene in the same direction.

Let's revisit our example and try to stumble in the same direction:

Janet: My cousin Ralph is sick.
Frank: Yes, and I will take his shift.
Janet: Yes, and we could never forgive ourselves if you died tonight.
Frank: Yes, and Ralph's illness is his fault, but I'm to blame for swearing to protect you.
Janet: Yes, and what a foolish oath given what's out there [she looks].

Now we're getting somewhere! Here is a scene where I don't feel like it is work from line to line (again, hard to tell on paper but work with me). Five lines in and we feel like we get what sort of scene this is, what could be fun about it, what sort of role Frank and Janet have to play.

So what is different?

  • Contrast the scene in part one:
    • Most of this scenelet is "about" Ralph on the surface, but rather than re-iterating the "Ralph is sick" information each line adds new information. For example, Frank's first line tells us that Frank and Ralph work/have shifts together and Ralph's sickness seems an imposition to Frank. That's a ton of information from 5 words (and their delivery) compared to the no real info we got from "he is vomiting on my shoe."
    • That information makes it less about Ralph at all, and more about Frank, Janet and their situation. While there is no heavy exposition, we get a real sense for who all 3 of these characters are and what this universe is we are creating from these 5 information-packed lines.
  • Contrast the scene in part two:
    • Both players are digging the same hole, though notice that it takes form and shape as the lines progress. This is good. This is collaborative scenework.
    • The first line is about poor cousin Ralph. By the second line we see Ralph's impact. By the third we see the impact is truly Frank's sacrifice. And so forth.

I cheated a bit here by skipping what could be a 3rd step. The information I am adding in this 3rd scene is also some emotionally charged information. That is what I call the information that matters. The information that matters to the two human beings in the scene. The reason I skipped it is that I believe the first two tend to lead to the third. Especially when we get to this part:


At first, this seems like a lot of new rules to replace or (WORSE) pile onto existing rules. I urge you not to do that. From my POV, you don't need rules. I am breaking this all down so you see why it works not how to do it. 

The long answer: I believe that many improvisers upon hearing a line will make a lot of assumptions. For some it is visual, for some it is more logical, but they get made. Take for example, "My cousin Ralph is sick." When you hear that, what pops into your head? Where are we? Is Ralph in the room? Is Janet upset about this news? Glad? Take all those assumptions that are already in your head, and make your next line packed with some information from them.

When I was writing this example, in my mind the sickness had dire consequences. Maybe for you, Ralph is skipping school or we're all dogs or something. 

To sum up: yes add information. No you don't need to invent it. Just say what's already in your head. I know this is not as easy as I make it sound.

The shorter answer: YETI. YETI will focus you on emotional content, on relationship truths, and on adding information right at the top of your scenes. 

It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward. -Buddhist proverb

Beyond Yes And: Stumbling in the Right Direction (part 2)

In part one of the Beyond Yes And series, I talked about what it means to add information (instead of details) in every line. But is all information even useful? 

Let's revisit our example and try to add information in every line:

Janet: My cousin Ralph is sick.
Frank: Yes, and he is vomiting on my brand new shoe.
Janet: Yes, and those are expensive looking loafers.
Frank: Yes, and can you believe they were hand-me-downs from my grandpap!
Janet: Yes, and they just don't make shoes like they used to...

In this revised scene, we do a bit better job of adding new information in each scene. Instead of finding different ways to say "Ralph is sick," we are saying new things. 


Why doesn't that feel much better? Chris Trew at The New Movement used this metaphor: think of the top of a scene as a wide open beach full of infinite possibilities. Each bit of information added is one of the players digging into the beach. Sometimes we make many small shallow holes all around an idea. Or sometimes we dig deeper into one hole.

This scene again follows the "Yes And" rules and even my guidance to add information in every line. Only now that information is making many shallow holes. Let's count the holes!

  1. Poor sick cousin Ralph
  2. Poor ruined Janet's shoe (Frank contributes to this hole)
  3. Frank's grandpap
  4. The good ole days

You: Ok I see your point. But in the last example, the lines were all about the same thing and that was a problem!
Me: Yes, now you're getting it!

We want to be adding information, but adding information that all points in the same direction. If this sounds hard, it's only because you've been improvising so long and you are used to (perhaps even good at) inventing things. We get in our own way.

The ideal place is allowing yourself to stumble. No need to think your way from one line to the next. To hold these "rules" or "guidelines" in your head. You just stumble forward line to line, listening intently to your scene partner with your eyes on the same prize. More on the how next week.