Why Do I Have to Start at the 101 Level?

The one question we are asked the most is, “Do I have to start in IMPROV 101?” This question typically comes from people who have existing training in improv or have taken some acting classes that involved improvisation.

The first thing we want you to understand is that, yes, our IMPROV 101 class is designed to teach people with zero improv experience how to improvise and how to improvise well; however, it has also been designed with experienced improvisers in mind who are coming to our training centre to hone and enrich their existing training and to learn how to perform team-based longform improv.

Starting in IMPROV 101 is not about starting over; it’s about providing yourself with a greater set of tools for you to take with you onstage for use in your scenework and to perform the best longform set possible with your team. In order to be able to do so, there are techniques that we teach starting on Day 1 of IMPROV 101 that are important to the proper presentation of ensemble-based longform. After a certain stage, you will start to perform at a higher calibre and start thinking not only about the scene, but the themes of the set, and the greater ideas that the set itself presents, but you need to be able to understand why and how to do that before attempting to.

While experienced improvisers will definitely have an advantage over students who are new to improv, there are a number of reasons why we want everyone to start in IMPROV 101. I’ll address the main ones.

A Different Approach

The first reason is that you will be learning a completely different style of improvisation, an approach that is strikingly different from the way improv is taught elsewhere in Toronto.

As a metaphor, martial arts is a good example: If you have studied Karate for years, maybe even achieved a black belt, all the exercise, conditioning and discipline you have learned will help if you decide to study Kung Fu, but in order to learn Kung Fu, you have to start with the foundations of that style. If you learn Kung Fu, maybe Wing Chun style, you would have to start with some basics to learn other styles of Kung Fu.

Knowing one style of improv — scenic improv, theatre games, narrative, etc. — does not mean you will be able to jump ahead in another style. You will have an advantage over your class mates that your experience will provide you with, but everyone is learning THIS STYLE together.

A Different Vocabulary

If you have studied improv before, you may have heard phrases such as “Find the point of conflict,” “Know the story of the scene,” or “Insert a tilt.” These are great tools for narrative-based (plot-driven) improvisation, but Harold-based longform is based on character, relationship and theme.

If you do not know the difference between a source scene, comment scene, theme scene or tangent scene, or what the specific function of each of these scenes is and the roles they play in different longform formats, you need to learn them. If you don’t understand the concept of “the game of the scene”, and we’re not refering to TheatreSports type of games, you need to learn it and understand it. If you don’t know what an organic opening is or how to perform it or why to perform it, you need to learn it. If you don’t understand the difference between invention and creation as it relates to improv, you need to learn it.

Game moves, runs, mapping, group mind, transformations, scene painting, ghosting, shadow characters, and other such concepts are an integral part of our training program.

Individual Empowerment

Some of our students have come to us after studying at other training centres for a while, but they still lack the confidence to attack every scene, to attack the stage with power and to be able to support their scene partner and team with gifts that come from a place of power.

Much of this is based in improvisation taught from a perspective that there are a certain set of “improv rules” that, should you follow, will lead to good improv. Most of these rules tell improvisers what “not” to do. As a result, improvisers tend to enter scenes with an inherent set of insecurities that, should they do a negotiation, transaction or teaching scene, or maybe ask a question, they have broken a “rule” and somehow failed.

We feel that failure is a concept that should never be taught in improv because we don’t believe it is possible to fail at creating something unique without forethought or planning (a.k.a. makin’ shit up). A system of teaching improvisation that addresses the idea of failure, or even embraces failure, automatically sets its students up for exactly that.

Failure exists only when there is an expectation that has not been met. Expectations in improvisation, and the resulting “failure” come solely from the instructor’s idea of what he or she would have done with the scene, how he or she would have “written” it. This is saying that your choices as a person, as an improviser, are wrong and that his or hers is the only correct choice. This is what we refer to as “choice coaching” and it is a practice we strongly discourage because every person has the power to make his or her choices in a scene.

We will, however, provide you with a set of tools, techniques, that will allow you to make stronger choices in your scenes, to understand how the comedy of the scene is derived, and to play at the top of your game every time you step on stage. Eliminating the concepts of failure and fear from your improv vocabulary will help eliminate your need for approval, allow you to recognize your skill as an improviser and provide you with the skill and power to improvise with just about anyone.

Teams, Not Individuals

Longform improv is gestalt, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We focus on individual empowerment in IMPROV 101 and start planting the seed for a performance mentality focussed on the team, rather than an improviser’s ego. We spend a lot of time working on developing a group mind among the students in the class. Feedback on scenework is highly focussed on the individual, but the techniques you learn will help you play better with others.

This is something we take very seriously, and it is a concept at the core of training and performance. You may be used to individual introductions of the improvisers when performing at a show. When an ITC team performs a show, we introduce only the team, not the improvisers. This small decision allows us to strip our individual egos out of our performance to focus on the work of our team, our group, our ensemble, above the work of any individual improviser. In longform improv, it is imperative to support the group above and beyond the self.