Choosing an improv school

Person saying which?Choosing a comedy improv school can be a dark art. If you don’t know improv, how do you know how to tell which improv school is best for you?

In Australia there are a lot of schools teaching improv. They each teach different methods and techniques, and they each produce a different type of improvisor. What they won’t tell you, is that the first school you choose will usually decide permanently what kind of improvisor you are and which method and skills will become your foundation going forward.

Most students who come through their first improv class, will have fallen in love with it and will rave about how great it was, regardless which school they attended or who their teacher was. Improv is such a mind shift, most beginners are blown away and will think that both their school and teacher are the best to ever teach improv. It often takes a few years of classes and meeting other improvisors before students learn otherwise. This subjectivity makes it even more difficult to choose a school.

Obviously we think we’re the best improv school in Australia. We have the most comprehensive curriculum, have some of the most experienced and innovative teachers, and are at the forefront of improvisation research (see our 2018 published book Inside Improvisation). But if you want to train with someone else, here’s some tips on what to look for in an improvisation school. Or if you want to know a bit more about us, check out our FAQ or About us pages.

Teachers

Improvisation training lives or dies on the quality and experience of teachers. Most schools have a set curriculum for teachers to follow, and the teachers usually change from term to term. Some schools often assign the newest and most inexperienced teachers to the beginning levels of training — this is a tradition we see outside of Australia as well. We believe this is the wrong approach — the first teacher a student gets should be the best and most experienced available.

The early skills are a critical foundation upon which all improvisation techniques are built. For example the first few lessons usually work on trusting the unconscious to be free and boundless in the moment. This is a delicate moment for new improvisors not used to such a stream of consciousness, and teachers must be able to safely guide the student through that process. Early scene work can also throw up obstacles for some students, who then need specific guidance on how to work through that obstacle. Only an experienced teacher can catch issues like these when they’re outside the set curriculum.

So why do many schools do it the wrong way around? Because improvisation teachers are typically short term contractors and experienced teachers are difficult to come by and have a higher $ rate. The attrition rate for new improvisation students is high — as the fun wears off, they quit and do something else on their one free weeknight. Schools need lots of teachers for the beginner students, and less teachers for advanced students. Many experienced teachers also lose interest in teaching the basics, so they prefer to teach only later levels or special workshops.

When choosing an improv school, first confirm who the teacher will be, and how many years they’ve been performing and teaching improvisation. Improvisors need many many years of experience to fully grasp the underlying principles and techniques, and to be able to identify and fix problems for individual students. You wouldn’t do a dance or art class with someone who just started a few years ago. It’s the same with improvisation.

Academy of Improvisation teachers have been improvising for over 20 years, and teaching for over 15 years.

Short form vs. long form

The terms short form and long form improv don’t have clear definitions around the world. However they’re still used to identify the different types of improvised comedy performance. Most schools teach just one or the other.

Short form improvisation consists of short game based scenes. An example might be a 3 minute scene where every 30 seconds the players take on a different accent, or they only speak a specific number of words at a time. Short form improvisation can be seen on the TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway and in stage shows such as Theatresports or ComedySportz. A short form show is often MCed and alternates between improvised scenes, game introductions and scoring by judges.

Short form shows can look like competitions or sporting events to the untrained eye. But the secret is that the competition isn’t real. The cast are an ensemble, working together and supporting each other creatively. It may seem like winning and losing to the audience, but it’s not. Often people who are new to teaching improvisation see this competition as a bad thing, usually because they don’t understand how it actually works.

Long form improvisation on the other hand, uses techniques for improvising scenes as they might be taken from a play, and are usually strung together without interruption, like a play or performance piece. Because of this, long form improvisation requires more training.

Both short form and long are funny to watch when done well, and both are about collaboration, creativity and teamwork. Both can be used for generating comedy sketches and scripts. However they require different skills and brain muscles.

When choosing an improv school, research the form you should learn by looking at the types of comedy you like. Look at the sitcoms and stand up comedians you like, and find out what kind of improvisation training they’ve had. Also look at the time you have available now and in the future for taking classes and getting to the stage. Then find a school that fits. If they don’t say which forms they teach, or they don’t really know, then perhaps find another school.

Academy of Improvisation is the only school in Australia to teach both short and long form in a single curriculum.

Different methods

There are a number of different methods for theatrical improvisation (comedy improv), and for the most part they are incompatible. The two main ones are based on the teachings of Keith Johnstone, and a number of groups from Chicago in the U.S. They are often referred to as Johnstone’s impro system or just impro, and the Chicago methodChicago style, or Chicago long–form improv respectively.

Both methods are taught in Australia, but each improvisation school only teaches one method. Most acting schools teach techniques from Johnstone’s impro system. This is mostly due to Australia’s English acting heritage and the popularity of Johnstone’s Theatresports in Australia. More recently the Chicago method has become very popular in Australia. This is mainly due to the success of Chicago method improvisors as writers and actors in U.S. based TV sitcoms.

Both methods can be used for either short form or long form improvisation, but Johnstone’s impro system works best for short form, and the Chicago method works best for long form.

When applying for a course, research the types of comedy you like. Look at the sitcoms and stand up comedians you like, and find out what which method of improvisation training they’ve had. When choosing an improv school, ask them which method they teach. If they don’t know, or say it’s all the same, then maybe look at a different school.

Academy of Improvisation is the only school which teaches more than one method, including both Johnstone’s impro and Chicago improv, because we’re the school that first figured out how to do it. We’re also the first school in Australia to have taught the Chicago method — even though others have made similar claims.

Class sizes

ClassroomThere’s no limit to the size of an improvisation class, but the most optimal for comedy improv is from 6 to 12. This gives students more teacher attention and practice time, but is big enough so they can work with different people in class.

At most schools, the final class size depends on how many students sign up for the class, and how many will comfortably fit in the room. Financially, the bigger the class the more income for the school, so often classes are small when first promoted, but bigger as they fill up.

When choosing an improv school, ask for a money back guarantee that the class will be a certain size range. More than about 12 and not everyone gets full attention in class — particularly in later levels — practical time begins to reduce, and there’s more sitting and watching than getting up and doing.

Ongoing support

Most improvisation schools provide varying degrees of ongoing support after class graduation. With on average 50 people per term graduating from their final improvisation class across all Sydney schools, it can be difficult for students to then find opportunities to put their training into practice.

When applying for a course, ask what official support the school gives after graduating. Do they have their own internal groups that all graduating students can perform in? Or do they have auditions or special selections of just the best students for ongoing official school performance opportunities? Must students compete or audition for ongoing performance opportunities? Does the school provide information on ongoing opportunities outside their school, or do they only promote their own branded shows? Does the school have strong contacts with other schools and the improvisation community at large, or do they keep to themselves?

Most schools won’t let you start their training at an upper level when coming from another school, you’ll often have to start again at level 1 or 2. This is partly due to wanting to maintain the school’s improv philosophy, but also so students will take more classes.

So make sure you choose the improv school that gives you the right opportunities, both inside and outside their system, or you’ll have to start again at level 1 at a new school.

Who owns your image?

PhotographerAll schools use images of students in classes on their website and with other promotional materials. Some use a lot, and some use very few.

An upcoming first improvisation class can be daunting and stressful for students, but by the end of the class they should be happy, excited and more confident about the journey ahead. Taking a class photo at the end of a level isn’t unusual, and is often a part of taking classes. But what students don’t need is an unknown professional photographer turning up to their first few lessons to take promo shots, as can often happen. Due to the nature of improvisation, classes must be a safe and protected place to work on the craft with their teacher, free from outside intrusion.

How do schools get away with using your image? All schools require their students to sign either a release form or a Terms and Conditions form when registering for classes. These state clearly what the school can do with their image. You’ll find a spectrum of different Terms and Conditions across the different schools. Some give simple permission to take a class photo for promotional and archival purposes, right through to unlimited rights to use your photographic or video image for any purpose whatsoever, such as for financial gain or selling it to other companies.

When choosing an improv school, be aware that your image will probably be published online at some point. This might be during your first classes, and might be more often than you expect. Some students might be more than happy to be photographed and for their image to be used by others, as they’ve already planned a path to celebrity. Whereas other students might not be so comfortable about losing their privacy. Always read the Terms and Conditions of the school you’re applying for, and make sure you’re OK with how they will use your image. Especially when you’re a child under 18 years old.

Academy of Improvisation very rarely takes photos of students in classes — which may explain why our website looks a lot different to our competition. When we do take photos, they are only used for promoting Academy of Improvisation, are only used with student permission, and are never taken in our beginners levels. Our photos are all opt–in by default — we ask you before we shoot your image, not after — and the images are never used for any other purpose.

Do your research

Choosing an improv school can be difficult when you don’t know what improv is or what makes a good school, especially when all you see before you sign up is a website with photos of people having fun, and text containing words related to fun, creativity and thinking on your feet.

What it comes down to is just doing your research and figuring out which one you think fits you best.