How to Start an Improv Group
Starting an improv group is really easy. Anyone that tells you otherwise is dumb.
If you want to build something that is long lasting, then you have to do something besides ask your buds if you want to do Whose Line games. You need to build something that has a message and something that you want to say/do.
Do these things to form great improv comedy groups that will last.
1. Create a personal mission statement for yourself
Do you want to get famous? Do you want to tell stories? Do you just want to play games?
Before you ask other people to help out in your comedy journey, you need to figure yourself out. An improv group will not help make you perfect. Your improv group is not a manic pixie dream girl and will not make you famous.
Get a mission statement put together for your own improv goals. Ideally, you should have a creative mission statement (i.e. “I want to create art dependent on an audience using an audience’s ideas”). That way, you can justify using the medium of improv instead of just doing it because you lazy. Plus, your improv group can ideally incorporate similar mission statements.
For me, improv is a type of paintbrush. You can tell a bunch of stories with a bunch of different brushes (sketch, narrative storytelling, performance art, textbooks, smoke signals). At some point, you should ask yourself why you’re using your brush and then get the most out of it. If you can’t think of why you’re using improv, then do sketch or something else. I will not punish you. And, if you expect me to, that’s strange.
Once you figure out why you want to do improv, then you can start assembling your Avengers.
2. Put yourself out there
Take improv classes, go to improv jams, do improv things. If you care about starting a group, you’ll have to overexpose yourself just to get people to be familiar with you. It’s going to be tiring and you’re going to have to do this before/after your day job.
The more work that you do yourself, the more people know you and the less scary a partner you look like. The one thing that people care about most is themselves. You have to do the unfair thing and prove that you are a.) funny and b.) not scary so people will want to play with you.
3. Hang out with people
To prove that you are fun, put in some extracurricular time to your extracurricular improv activities. This means seeing movies, getting food, and DOING THINGS THAT ARE NOT IMPROV OR COMEDY RELATED.
Your improv group lives and dies by how much you like each other outside of doing comedy. If you all want to throttle each other because of your political beliefs, then you won’t last no matter how brilliant your comedy is. You need to partner with people that you will be friends with and you have to have things in common besides comedy.
If the only thing you have in common with other people is comedy, you will only be doing comedy about comedy and only nerds like that (i.e. Me).
4. Ask your buds
Once you’ve made friends, ask them to play with you. If these people are your friends, then they will say yes or no respectively.
You’ll get no’s. You can’t take that personally. Forming your improv is a bit of a business. If you do, then you need to go back to step 1 and figure out why you want to do improv specifically.
Be articulate in your asks. This is where your mission statement can come in handy. “I want to form a group that’s does improvised biopics based off of an audience member’s life.” That’s a very specific ask for and lets the person know what your goals are. This can make them more inclined to join you versus, “Hey, wanna form a group?”
If you’re articulate, then you sound like you know what you’re doing and are starting the group off on the right foot. Plus, you get to create a collective goal for the group here.
(Bonus points: make sure it’s not four white dudes. All improv groups are four white dudes and that is not hyperbole at all. While you want to go for whoever is best [and certainly, there are exceptions to these bonus points], you want to do the best possible improv. Different perspectives help create a richer story. Because of this, your dick jokes will be much more complex.)
5. Find an outside director
The way to get the most out of your group is by having someone that says, “No.” Someone has to tell you that you suck or are great. This often comes in the form of a coach or director.
Your group can tell the director what your goal is. From there, the director can help your training by looking at a scene and saying, “You’re not achieving your goal because of this” They can judge how close you are to your creative intent and push you to get there.
In his book Directing Improv, Asaf Ronen suggests having one person from outside the group be dedicated to training your group. That’s going to make things cleanest and everyone knows where the director stands. It can get hairy if one of your fellow teammates decides to direct for a week and is starting to get a bit too personal with notes. A director’s job is to get the best out of everyone, so they have the ability to appear like the bad guy. It’s hard for one of your fellow teammates to be the bad guy, but it is possible.
Also, the best thing about an outside director is that, if you work with someone your group doesn’t jive with, you can simply say as a group, “Thank you, but we want to go in a different direction.”
A director will have their own biases. It’s going to help if you pick a director who has similar biases to your group. Pick someone that is authoritative and will give you the truth, but don’t pick someone who has a background in clowning for your weekly pop culture recap improv show (unless you want to improve your physicality and non-verbal skills).
(Bonus points: pick multiple directors to hit certain skillsets. One director will get a certain skill set out of you. Rotating directors out each week puts a lot of wisdom into your team’s heads. Don’t play nice and feel obligated to stick with one director. )
6. Find out what your end goal is for the year
You have a team. You have a director(s). Now what do you want to do?
You could just be a jam group that has no desire to play on stage. That’s so fine. If you’re a hobbyist of improv and are terrified of being on stage, but love improv, get a group together and jam the heck out of it. Improv is yours now, so make it your own.
If you want to do shows, then figure out how you want to do shows. Something that makes me super-depressed is seeing groups beholden to theaters. If a theater doesn’t accept them, then they won’t do shows.
There are bars, coffeeshops, and a billion different businesses that need something to make people come. Your amazing, ambitious, driven group is that something. So go do steps 1-4 on businesses around town if you can’t get a theater residency. (Also, an independent venue might be better than a theater venue because you could get a couple bucks in return).
Just figure out what your group wants to do and do everything to work towards it. Creatively, financially…just figure out what’s most important to all of you and get it done.
Also, don’t forget to play.
I want to make sure you succeed. If you have any tips on how to create a long lasting troupe, leave a comment below and lets make sure every improv troupe lasts 400 years. We can do it!