Q. I’m new to improv and just formed a troupe with other newbies. How long should we practice before we start performing?
A. Michael: Many improvisers begin performing in front of an audience almost as soon as they start to study improv. Is this a good idea? Well… maybe.
Improv traditionally has a low bar for entry. By that, I mean many improvisers begin their performing career without a lot of the extensive training that typically is expected in the performing arts. (Imagine a bunch of untrained adults strapping on toe shoes and jumping into Swan Lake! Ouch!) Improvisers tend to be kind of a rag-tag bunch, from diverse backgrounds, who have in common a love of making stuff up with others. That’s all they really need to get started.
It’s possible that getting out there in front of an audience will provide the new improviser with huge amounts of learning. It has been said that “one performance is worth ten rehearsals” in terms of learning. And certainly, if one is eager to get out there on stage, there’s a lot to be said for getting that quick fix of audience-fueled adrenaline.
On the other hand, when people first start to study improv, they are often still fighting some potential bad habits. Trying to be clever. Driving the scene. Or, hiding in plain sight—making their partner do all the work. Or they might be really good at gagging—getting a big laugh at the expense of their partner or the scene. Starting to perform too soon can sometimes reinforce these bad habits, and then they are harder to overcome.
So what to do? I usually suggest that people get a strong grounding in the fundamentals in classes, and then enter the world of performance gently.
Perform for other improvisers! Other improvisers “get it.“ They are perhaps the most loving audience possible. At Mopco, we run a monthly Jam (usually the third Saturday of the month) that is designed to bring improvisers of all abilities together to play.
Perform for friends and family! A very informal performance for a handful of supportive friends and family is a great way to start out. Letting the audience know that this is new to the performers, and inviting them into some of the games, can make the whole experience easier and more joyful. Improv is great, because you can do a show in a large living room—you just need a few friends on hand.
The real test of whether you’re ready is simple: Performing improv is supposed to feel good. And if you start with a knowledge of the basics and a supportive audience, it should.