Monday, 24 April 2017

How I give feedback when teaching improv.

Blog by Steve Roe, Director of Hoopla Impro. Courses, shows and improv theatre in London, UK.
Twitter: @HooplaImpro
Facebook: /HooplaImpro
Website: www.HooplaImpro.com


This is about how I give feedback when teaching improv, as a couple of people were asking me about it recently so I thought it might be helpful. This is my own personal style, rather than Hoopla in general, and I'm not saying this is the "right" way of doing it as there are loads of different styles of teaching with advantages to all. This is just what has worked for me.

Much of this is weirdly influenced by swimming coaching. I learnt to swim front crawl properly a couple of years ago and the teacher (Dan Abel with Swim Trek, https://www.swimtrek.com/swimtrek-coaching ) was one of the best teachers of anything I've ever had. For weeks he'd get me just working on one thing in isolation at a time, for instance the tilt of my head as I took a breath, or the extension of my hands into the water. On each length I only had one thing to focus on, and he only gave me feedback on that one thing. We didn't move on until that one thing was mastered. Only after 7 weeks did we put it all together and swim complete strokes again, and I felt like a dolphin. My swimming went from not able to do more than 3 lengths of front crawl to swimming in a full triathlon with a great time, all in the space of a couple of months.

So here's how I personally look at feedback and teaching in improv:

One point of focus

I aim to give students just one point of focus per exercise. So if we're doing game of the scene I will only focus about that and only talk about that. Even if someone is blocking something, or being too quiet on stage, I won't talk about that I'll just talk about game of the scene. 

Then all feedback to that exercise is only in those terms of the point of focus. This is so the group stays focussed on that thing together without distraction, and the new habit can be absorbed and we can move on step by step over the course.

If there are other things going wrong in the scene we can cover those later.

For instance with my swim coach he would spend ages just giving feedback on body alignment in the water, that's the first thing he looked at. Once I had that as a habit then he moved onto head tilt for breathing. But he didn't give feedback on head tilt if the point of focus was body alignment. 

I've found the opposite - giving feedback on everything missing from a scene or wrong with a scene, can be a little overwhelming for students and sometimes results in the feeling in them that no matter what they do they can't get it right. It's impossible to be doing the whole of improv all the time, so there will always be something you are doing well and something you are missing. However there is sometimes space to give multiple focus feedback later in a course, as long as there is later space to later work on things needed moment by moment. 

Make the point of focus clear

I try and make the point of focus clear, each time a different pair get up to do the exercise. The mind can get quite noisy and students sat waiting to get up can start measuring themselves by all manner of unhelpful criteria.

So each time someone new gets up I say "we're doing .... and I want you to focus on just ...."

If someone is confused in class it's sometimes from trying to do all of improv all the time, rather than just focussing on one thing at a time. 

Give feedback on just that one thing

I then try and give honest feedback on just that one thing. If there are other things that need work on we can save them until later. However other things done well should also be celebrated. 

If they've got it, celebrate

If they've achieved the point of the exercise then celebrate it so it beds in and becomes a new habit. I also like to discuss why it went well. I think it's important to talk just as much about what went well as what's missing. We are aiming to do more of the behaviours that lead to fun scenes, so that's what we can learn from. I ask them how it felt, and remind them what they did at the start of the scene.

If we reward supportive collaborative behaviour we get more supportive collaborative behaviour. 

If there's been a great scene don't just say "great scene", celebrate it and learn from it and use it to change the mood of the entire group for the best.

If they haven't got it, go again

If they aren't getting the point of the exercise I try and give one thing helpful, around the point of focus, and then get them to go again until they get it. Sometimes I might decide the whole group goes again, either straight after or another week. I've found the most important bit of improv, responding to what's just been said in the present moment, is worth practicing again and again. 

Don't give negative feedback without an immediate chance to do it again

If I have to point out what someone is missing I then immediately give them a chance to do again working on that missing thing, and then celebrate once they have it. This means the behaviour can be changed there and then. Otherwise a negative note sat on for a week without action can turn into a permanent message of "I can't do this".

The feedback is the exercise

For many of our courses the feedback to the group is the next exercise. I'm watching what the group does, seeing what they do well and also seeing what they are missing. What they are missing I then choose an exercise for to teach that missing thing, either as the next exercise or the next week. This way people gradually improve moment by moment as a result of doing exercises. If they want to know what they are missing as an improviser, it's in the theme of the next exercise.

The exercises we teach aren't random, they are designed for the group to give them what we think we need there and then. 



Make a game of it


I've found many beginners struggle with who what where in scenes. I've found giving negative feedback ("your scene was missing a location") isn't always helpful as sometimes they end up going on stage thinking improv is a checklist of things to get, and also they end up fearing being told what they are doing wrong.

So I've found you can flip this mentality around by making a game of it.  

So two improvisers go on stage and start a scene from scratch. Three members of the audience have a balloon each, one is for where, one for who and one for what. Every time the improvisers on stage do something about where, who or what the corresponding baloon is blown up a bit. When the audience are satisfied they let go of the balloons and they fly around with a farting noise. 

The focus of the improvisers now becomes postive ("let's put in lots of fun stuff about where we are, who we are and what we are doing") rather than negative ("I hope I don't forget one of those things and get in trouble"). 

Closed loop exercises

My favourite exercises I term closed-loop, where the learning point is wrapped up in the exercise so that the only way to complete the exercise is to really emotonally engage with the learning point. 


Issue a postive direction rather than negative

Whenever possible I try to issue a postive direction (what you could do) rather than the negative (what you shouldn't do). 

For instance rather than saying "don't block" I'll try and say "agree with the other person's offer as much as possible". 

The reason for this is that the easiest way to not do something is to do nothing at all. The easiest way to "not block" is to say nothing at all, and too much negative direction and the improviser eventually freezes up.

Positive direction gives people active things they can actually do on stage. They are still receiving feedback just flipped around into the postive.

If you want to remove a behaviour replace it with something else

Similar to above. Sometimes people have unhelpful behaviours in workshops that you do just have to call out, but even then it's important to give them something else they can do instead. If you don't give them the positive behaviour they can do instead they either freeze up or return to old habits.

Multiple practices

I try to minimise the time I'm talking so that students get more time practicing. For each new game I like them to do a practice all at once around the room first, then one on stage, then one working on anything that comes up, then celebrate. 

I do the practice ones around the room without feedback as I like people to learn and get a feel for it themselves first. 

Being succint (even if this blog isn't)
 
I try to be succint with explanations and feedback. Sometimes I employ a fun captain on the course. If I go off on one and talking too much they gradually raise their arm until they are pointing at me and then say Beeeeepp. I then go back into the action.

Make the bread of your shit sandwiches thicker

In business there is a term called a "shit sandwich" which is when giving someone criticism you surround it with two praises, for instance:

"You always dress very well at work. We are slightly concerned about you shouting I hate you all non stop from 2pm to 5pm every day. You are very punctual though"

Understandably shit sandwiches have grown to have a bad reputation at work.

However the bread should be thicker and be ongoing. We should be constantly celebrating what the person is doing well, evertime they are up. Then the occasional bit of negative feedback is no longer painful, as they know you are coming from a supportive and honest place.

Increase what's going well

My main aim when teaching is to constantly celebrate, learn from and increase what's going well. These moments gradually expand and there is no space left in the group for the bad bits. If people are interested in character I'll do loads about character and get enthused about it and you'll find that game of the scene or story will pop up as a fun side effect, we can then talk about those things as they pop up.

Core Skills Practice

The things we practice in week 1 or 2 of a beginners course should be practiced all the time, even with advanced improvisers, as returning to the basics keeps us connected.

Improv is less about rules and more about behaviours
 
Mick Napier writes well about this. 

Sometimes we are told "don't block" as a rule. But people "don't block" when they trust each other on stage, are having fun, and are excited about going into the unknown together. So rather than teach by rules we can instead help people to trust each other on stage, have fun, and be excited about going into the unknown. Blocking is a symptom but there's something much deeper and more fun that we can play with instead.

Most of all for me improv is about feelings rather than the intellect, so quite often I'm aiming for someone to emotionally experience something on stage rather than sit there taking notes. That's the spirit of improv. 


That's enough from me, hope it was helpful! Remember this is just my personal teaching style I'm not saying this is right or wrong.




Blog by Steve Roe, Director of Hoopla Impro. Courses, shows and improv theatre in London, UK.
Twitter: @HooplaImpro
Facebook: /HooplaImpro
Website: www.HooplaImpro.com

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

I want to let go.

Blog by Steve Roe, Director of Hoopla Impro. Courses, shows and improv theatre in London, UK.
Twitter: @HooplaImpro
Facebook: /HooplaImpro
Website: www.HooplaImpro.com

I like spontaneous improv. I value spontaneity in improv above everything else. I don't care so much about the structure of a show, or format, or how clean or messy it is. I just like seeing people being spontaneous on stage and surprising themselves. I feel like any audience, no matter how new to improv, can see the difference between spontaneous and careful improv.

I was talking to a student about this recently who was struggling with spontaneity on stage, and thought the following conversation might be helpful for other people new to improv. 

For anonymity I'll call the people A and B. I am B, but keep that a secret.
A: "I'm stuck in my head"
B: "How does that feel?"
A: "I just want to be better but I'm not"
B: "How do you personally define better?"
A: "I just want to have fun"
B: "How could you have fun?"
A: "I want to try and let go?"
B: "Try?"
A: "Ha! Yes. "
B: "Well done, you have been trying."
A: "Ok not trying. I have to let go. "
B: "You don't have to let go. You don't have to do any of this. "
A: "Ok. I want to try to let go."
B: "Try?"
A: "I want..."
B: "Do you?"
A: (Bursts out laughing) "I want to let go!"

A seemed much more relaxed in workshops after that.

It reminds me of learning to ski. When booking the holiday at home we have a dream of sliding down the glorious mountains of the Alps. However when we come to our first skiing lesson at the top of the slopes we find that it's actually pretty frightening, and spend most of the time trying not to slide. In fact the first bunch of lessons are all about learning to stop and slow down. 

Eventually though we have to decide that we actually want to slide down the mountain. We want to slide, we want to go fast. Our muscles then relax instead of stress, and our body let's us flow down the mountain at speed. That's when skiing becomes really fun and free. 

To let go in improv you have to actually want to do that. Weirdly that's all you have to do. 

Blog by Steve Roe, Director of Hoopla Impro. Courses, shows and improv theatre in London, UK.
Twitter: @HooplaImpro
Facebook: /HooplaImpro
Website: www.HooplaImpro.com

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Impro highlights of 2016 and plans for 2017.


Hoopla impro courses and shows are back second week of January, details at www.HooplaImpro.com

Blog by Steve Roe, Director of Hoopla Impro. Courses, shows and improv club in London, UK.
Twitter: @HooplaImpro
Facebook: /HooplaImpro
Website: www.HooplaImpro.com


This blog isn't going to talk about politics or dead celebrities. Not that those things haven't been sad this year, it's just that this is an impro blog and I'm an impro savant. Weirdly 2016 has actually been a really good year for improv, which means I have turned into this idiot in a daily mash article: http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/society/2016-best-year-of-my-life-says-fking-idiot-20161219119212

So here's a selection of some of my personal improv highlights of 2016:


Introducing lots of beginners to improv

I love running our beginners courses and I love seeing people improvise on stage for the first time. Seeing people go from totally new to anything on stage to then improvising in front of a live audience is quite a thrill to us teachers as well as them. 

Partnerships

This Hoopla wouldn't exist at all without the great relationships we have with The Nursery, The Miller, The Maydays, The Poor School, The Charles Dickens School, C3Something, Duck Duck Goose, Theatre Delicatessen, St Mungo's, The Horse all of our performing groups, all of our teachers and many many more. In fact just attempting to write that list made me realise that there are easily 100 other groups/charities/organisations that we rely on and couldn't exist without.

In 2016 I really realised the huge value in partnering with other groups and organisations as it enables us to do so much more than we could by ourselves.

Performance Groups

Again over Christmas I've realised how lucky we are to have so many great performing groups working with us. Do Not Adjust Your Stage, Glitch, Guest Speaker, Geekeasy, The Playground, Music Box, RH Experience, TSOLT, GTI, C3Something, Maydays, Giggle Loop and Story Kitchen are just of the regularly performing groups and there are almost a 100 more who come and perform too.


Plus it's been really exciting to see so many new groups form at Launch Pads and other nights, and we're keen to support them ongoing.

Also the influence of Free Association and Monkey Toast has been really postive on us and the wider improv scence. 

Front of House Volunteers

This has been a huge change for the better this year. I put a bit of a cry for help up on facebook and twitter as we needed more help with shows and things. I was expected about 10 volunteers but instead got 100. The enthusiasm and support of these volunteers has meant that we've been able to put on more shows than ever, and are increasing our shows to 4 nights a week next year and then gradually increasing over next year to a full time venue. 

I really mean it, without the great volunteers we have we wouldn't be doing so many shows, so thank you very much it genuinely wouldn't happen without you.

If you fancy helping out at shows by the way there's some info at http://www.hooplaimpro.com/show-squad.html

Filming Team

I'm so excited about our filming team!!!! We've got a lovely team built up now and have done some training, so are ready to go with filming improv and sketches and semi-improvised sketches next year. I'm really excited about this. We've been tipping our toes into the filming world the last year but we're ready to jump in naked next year. We're just doing it for fun so please let me know if you'd like to be involved somehow.

End of course shows

Well done to everyone who performed improv for the first time this year, I really enjoyed every single end of course show. it's such a roller coaster of a journey and it's always amazing to see. I love watching people perform improv or a new form for the first time, when they are genuinely surprised at what they are saying moment by moment. 

Teachers


Big New Year shout to the Hoopla teaching team!!!!!!!!! I'm really lucky to have such a great team who are so passionate about supporting people into doing impro for the first time. I'm really lucky as I get to co-teach with Edgar who cracks me up and stops me taking anything too seriously. Plus whenever I've an impro problem I phone any of them up and chat and they not only fix my impro problem but my whole brain, thank you!

The Maydays Christmas Party

This was one of my favourite shows of the year. They do such a good job of bringing together a community of improvisers, and I've never seen a jam work so well in my life. Scene after scene was a hit and there is such a warm lovely vibe around everything they do. Also it was great to see people I knew as a beginners totally rock it on stage - Jessie and Iain I'm talking about you! 

Story Kitchen

Being in Story Kitchen is like stapling ones scrotum (or alternative) to an airplane and then seeing where it takes you. I mean that in a good way! Just when life settles down or becomes "normal" I find there is a monthly Story Kitchen show around the corner and before I know it I'm singing an opera while eating a cucumber. Faye is doing a great job of directing a box full of frogs that have inhaled jumping gas.

Panto!

Oh my gosh I loved this so much! Our last Narrative Long-Form Course of the year was Panto themed even though many of the cast, and many of the audience, had never seen a Panto. And it bloody worked!!! Ha! 

I really like this course as it combines all my favourite things into one thing: commedia dell'arte, narrative, characters, archetypes, love, death, villains, action, adventure and loads more. 

I love the London improv scene as it feels like everything from around the world, and history, is melting together to make some really great stuff. Game of the scene mixes with Narrative, Chicago improv mixes with Italian Commedia dell'Arte, theatre mixes with comedy.

Music Box

I really enjoyed every single Music Box show I saw this year and think they've really clicked as a group. The singing sounds beautiful, great use of genres and a nice balance between story, fun, character, relationships and love. 

If I was to put money on just one breakthrough group in 2017 it would be Music Box. 

The Showstoppers, The Mischief Theatre, Austentatious


It's been great to see The Showstoppers, The Mischief Theatre and Austentatious have such great mainstream success this year.

The Mischief Theatre used to be The Scat Pack improv group, before producing comedies like The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong. This year they've had three plays on the West End, won an Olivier Award, transferred to Broadway and got a BBC One TV show and radio show. Phew! I hope they've had a decent rest at Christmas.

What I've loved about seeing the success of them and Showstoppers and Austentatious is that it is the most well deserved thing I've ever seen. They are all some of the most hardworking improvisers out there and it's their dedication to making improv and comedy an art that has lead to their success.

At the Edinburgh Fringe The Scat Pack (later The Mischief) were performing about three shows a day, flyering all the time, guest appearing in other shows, doing all the press they could and basically working hard non-stop. And to top it all they were always really friendly and professional too. 

It's amazing to see it all pay off for them, and they've inspired many others including to me to work hard

Hoopla Plans for 2017:

  • To run lots of fun impro courses, especially for beginners and people new or newish to improv, and make those courses as fun and supportive as possible.
  • To improve diversity in the improv scene and help make improv open to all, in collaboration with other groups (more about that at http://www.hooplaimpro.com/improv-resources-community.html)
  • To increase our shows to four evenings a week from the second week of January (details on website soon). Wednesdays will be for newer groups or groups trying out new things, Thursday - Saturday will be a selection of the finest groups around. 
  • Working with groups to keep raising the standard of improv as high as possible to open up a wider audience.
  • To film lots of improv, sketches and semi-improvised sketches for fun and experience. 

Thanks again to everyone who has been involved in making this year great for improv, we really appreciate it and have a HAPPY NEW YEAR!




Hoopla impro courses and shows are back second week of January, details at www.HooplaImpro.com 

Blog by Steve Roe, Director of Hoopla Impro. Courses, shows and improv club in London, UK.
Twitter: @HooplaImpro
Facebook: /HooplaImpro
Website: www.HooplaImpro.com