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. 

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.

Notes: Paul Grondy Workshop

Paul Grondy

Last Saturday (March 30), I left Ric Walker's workshop and high-tailed it to Paul Grondy's. I have been a huge fan of Paul's ever since I heard Kevin Mullaney talk to him about Harold on the IRC podcast.

Some great quotes from Paul:

  • There is nothing funnier than the committed portrayal of someone else
  • You don't make comedy, the audience does.
  • Taking the comedy out allows us to slow down, take more time between line and response, and give yourself time to consider.
  • I don't want to be inspired by my own brain.
  • Just do acting work up front. You risk a boring scene but it leaves you room to trust in the comedy happening.
  • If you match someone's crazy, it's ok but realize you are doing a shorter scene. Otherwise, give the crazy focus and fuel it.

Paul’s priorities in an improv scene:

  1. Be somebody -- play that person realistically and authentically, and the audience will listen to your dialog in context of that character
  2. His scene partner -- helping build his or her idea
  3. Kick-ass object work
  4. A good location
  5. Then, saying some funny stuff

We played two versions of an exercise called "yes because." The first was about making a completely ridiculous offer into an honest and believable reality. The second was about taking a mundane offer and playing it honestly, resisting the temptation to take it to crazy town. They were very different but both really fascinating.

We finished the workshop with an Armando where the goal was to play normal people behaving normally. We were told that nothing was to happen in these scenes. I found it very hard to resist that built-in urge to heighten and play hard. But it was wonderful! The lesson (as I understand it) was not that one should never heighten but that these instincts can easily push us over the line into creating comedy or (dare I say it) trying to be funny. It was interesting how hard it was to play normal people behaving normally.

Posted with permission from Paul Grondy.

Notes: Ric Walker's Speed of Response Workshop

Ric Walker

I took two amazing workshops last weekend. The first was Ric Walker's Speed of Response. If you have the chance to study with Ric, I cannot recommend him highly enough. He has a very light and fun approach that I appreciate.

This workshop was not what I expected, but I loved what I got. What I took out of it was a a better understanding of how my brain works -- particularly how it learns -- and what I can do to help it learn better and faster. With the eventual goal being to improvise smarter faster.

Here are some high level (paraphrased) quotes that stuck with me:

  • Throw yourself at the edge of failure
  • Asking why helps you learn. Adults don't do this as much and it causes brain calcification.
  • If you are struggling, rather than use filler (e.g. "uhhh"), just take a breath. This reminded me of Susan Messing's gem, "Umm is the pause for the thought that will never come"
  • Being good at argument is counter to good brain function (uh oh)
  • You want ego in the product and none in the process
  • Self-awareness is another thing that helps your brain function improve

Ric said at the top not to expect a huge improvement immediately, but that he would provide us with individual and group exercises we could work on over time. And he certainly did! Here are some of my favorite new ones or new takes:

  • Individual exercises
    • Jump Rope
    • Fast finger pointing
    • Ear prompter (to the radio)
  • Pair exercises
    • Hot hands/slap
    • Ear prompter (with a partner)
    • Simultaneous talking
  • Group games
    • Hamburger
    • Chiminy Chee

We did an exercise at the end that I really liked as well. It was about literally walking through these steps with each line/response in a scene:

  • What did he or she say? (my scene partner)
  • How do I feel about it? (emotion word, not in terms of narrative)
  • What am I going to do about it?

I use a somewhat similar exercise I learned from Kevin Hines' where the first player delivers a line, second says what she feels about that, then the first says what he feels about how the second feels. But Ric's add that extra layer of action which really had a profoud effect. I definitely want to keep exploring this with my own work as well as teaching.

Thanks Ric for a fascinating 3 hours!

Posted with permission from Ric Walker.