Learning Improv Backwards

I appear to be learning improv backwards.

When I started in improv, the very first thing I did was an extemporized musical, directed by Dylan Emery under the creative guidance of Ken Campbell: arc-form narrative, archetypes, stagecraft and choreography, song structures and harmonies. I blustered through that without the faintest idea what I was doing. (Perhaps I’ve never done anything as good.)

After that I spent a lot of time rehearsing and performing complex and clever shortform games. I attended workshops on every topic out there, both improv- and non-improv-related, picking up a portfolio of skills. It was a lot of fun, and incredibly silly, but oddly unfulfilling, because I’d never really learned how to do scenes. Good shortform games must be spined by good scenework. I’ve also explored countless ingenious show formats devised to tie games and scenes together, discovering in the process that a great format can do wonders at disguising bad improv. For an entire year, I was frustrated by improv and by myself. I wanted to give up.

In the last year or two, I’ve begun learning how two-person scenes work, about relationships, and about heightening and exploring. It’s reinvigorated my love of improv, and it will be an ongoing process, but mastering scenework is itself dependent on mastering an even more basic set of skills first.

Only now, six years after I started, am I beginning to learn the foundations of improv: listening, accepting and committing. I have known about these principles from my very first class, but only as concepts. I am only just unwrapping these basics now – and discovering what a rich and deep source of magic they are. It’s an exciting time. Of course, in a year or two’s time, I’ll be looking back at the author of this blog and wondering about how arrogant and naïve he was. I hope so.

I wonder if other improvisers have had the same experience as I’m having? Did you learn improv backwards, starting with the complex, clever stuff and working back towards the basics? I’d be keen to find out…

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2 Comments on “Learning Improv Backwards”

  1. Yes! Although I’m quite far behind you in my improv journey, I’m just now beginning to focus on the basics with more insight and understanding than when I first set off. Someone told me the other day that you begin with the complex, clever stuff, then move onto the real, honest stuff and then enter the third phase where you succeed in marrying the two together.


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