Pick the Right Improv Coach in Five Easy Steps

Charlie Brown is a perfectly acceptable improv coach.

Charlie Brown is a perfectly acceptable improv coach.

Let’s be very clear: If you’re serious about improving your improv, you need a coach. If you’re serious about polishing your troupe’s rough edges and eliminating its bad habits, you need a coach.

If you want to get betterget a coach.

Also: You can’t be your own coach.

I mean, you can, but you will fail. At best you’ll fail; at worst, you’ll destroy the very thing you love. It’s physically impossible to both be in an improv troupe and objectively critique that improv troupe. It can’t be done. Don’t try. Better men than you have died attempting it.

You need a coach. Capisce?

Step #1: Create a Gigantic List of Possibilities

We’re going to cast a wide net — wider than we’re comfortable with. Sit down at your rehearsal, make someone the secretary, and then just start listing anyone you can think of who might possibly be a decent coach. Try not to limit yourselves too severely.

No debating names. No vetoing yet. No discussion. Just get the list created. Even if you know, in your heart of hearts, you wouldn’t dare work with that long-haired guy from your Level 3 class – write down his name, child!

Note: In all likelihood, there’s a group of people in your improv community who do all (or most) of the coaching. They’ve been around a long time, they have a reputation (good or bad), and they’re just sort of the default, go-to coaches. I’d encourage you to look past those names. While you may end up selecting one of the old standbys, try finding the next awesome local coach. Think of newer improvisers, or perhaps folks with experience in other performance arts, or maybe even stand-out newbies.

Here’s why you want to start with a huge list. First, the mere act of listing will inevitably lead you to (a) remembering quality candidates you might’ve forgotten or ignored, and (b) a clearer idea of what you want in an improv coach. Second, it will give us a concrete roster to which we can apply…

Step #2: Your Troupe’s Criteria

Put the list of names away for a moment. Now, have an honest and frank discussion with your troupe-mates about what you think is important in an improv coach.

The question you should be asking yourself is, “What do I think are qualities or skills that a good coach should have?” But try to avoid platitudes or fuzzy adjectives. Try to get specific and concrete and practical.

You might offer up criteria such as:

• Available to coach us every other Tuesday night
• Understands and has experience in the type of improv we want to do (the Harold, narrative, genre, etc.)
• Is brutally honest (or: Is very kind and sensitive)
• Has experience coaching other troupes we like
• Very experimental and willing to push the boundaries in rehearsal

Just like with our list of names, have someone write down this criteria. Then, review them as a group. Again, this is pure brainstorm — no judgments yet!

Step #3: Marry the List of Names and Criteria

Hopefully, this 15-20 minutes of name-listing and criteria-defining has warmed your group up, and you’re ready to start going through the names one by one. Your list of names might be a dozen people, or it might be pushing 100 (if you’re in one of the improv meccas) — but however many names you have, give each of them their due. But don’t spend more than 3-4 minutes discussing any one name.

To hire me to coach your improv troupe in Austin, drop me an email.

I like the tight time constraints because it forces the group to rely on their instincts. Improv coaching can become a rather personal dynamic, and thus, you want a director that doesn’t stir up instant negative feelings in your troupe. None of them. If even one of your troupe members is uncomfortable with a coach, the name should be expunged from the list.

Again: If even one of your troupe members is uncomfortable with a potential director, their name should be crossed out.

This is a harsh rule on purpose. You’re (hopefully) going to develop an ongoing, long-term relationship with this coach. And directing improv is a very personal interaction. Good improv requires the players to be comfortable. Thus, don’t try to talk one of your troupe-mates into a director they don’t like.

Be harsh. Anyone can veto any name at any time for any reason. Moreover, I don’t think you should demand that every veto be explained or justified. If you don’t like a coach — for whatever reason — cross them off the list.

Step #4: Test Rehearsals

You would never buy a car without test driving it. And improv coaches are exactly like cars (insofar as they run on petroleum and have nylon headrests).

Sure, you’re not going to invest thousands of dollars into a coach, but you’ll be investing something more valuable: your time and attention. Which is why you should narrow your list down (via the usual discussion) to a handful of names. And you should do this even if you have a clear front-runner. Even if there’s a name that sparked everyone’s interest, insist on doing a test rehearsal with at least one other candidate. Sometimes, adding even only one additional alternative can clarify things sharply.

And then, have a test rehearsal. Contact your top candidates, schedule an hour-long rehearsal with them. Try, to the extent your schedules allow, to have the rehearsals either back-to-back or within the same two or three weeks, so that you can keep the comparisons and ideas fresh.

I guarantee you that after even only one hour of one-on-one coaching, you’ll know whether a candidate is a potential match. It’s like dating: You may not know if someone is the love of your life within an hour, but you certainly know if they definitely aren’t.

Once you’ve conducted these test rehearsals, the results should come into focus. If you end up with a couple of possibilities, then you can begin considering things other than chemistry: cost, time, etc.

Step #5: Agreeing to Terms

Now that you’ve identified your top candidate, you need to define and agree to terms. Terms usually involve time, cost, and vision.

If you don’t already, create a rehearsal schedule. You should be rehearsing no less than twice per month, but a weekly rehearsal is ideal (for the super motivated among you). Your schedule should be recurring — e.g., “every other Tuesday night from 7-9:30 pm @ Rob’s house.” And your schedule should become a priority. In other words, barring an emergency, the troupe comes to rehearsal.

Here in Austin, most coaches charge $10-20/hour, with special considerations given based on the size of the troupe, the timing, the coach’s demand, etc. But because you’re entering into a long-term arangement, don’t be shy about trying to negotiate a slightly better deal. Your leverage is your commitment — i.e., because you’re planning on seeing this coach 3-4 times per month for the conceivable future, you should be able to demand a better rate.

For example: If you’re hiring a coach who normally charges $40 for a two-hour rehearsal, you could tell her, “We’ll hire you for about eight hours a month (four two-hour rehearsals) – but instead of $160, we’ll pay you $125.”

I know we’re not discussing major bucks here, especially when divided between your troupemates. And, of course, the very in-demand coaches could scoff at your attempt to talk them down (all the more reason to hire someone new!). But assuming you do stick with this coach for six months, you could be paying hundreds of dollars yourself. It’s not unreasonable to try and get a discount.

This is the trickiest consideration – and the most important. It’s one thing to have a coach who knows the form your troupe performs — the Harold, sci-fi genre, mono-pop, the Armando, etc. — but you’re also looking for a tonal or stylistic agreement. They should “get” your troupe’s individual personalities, talents, sense of humors. They should take the time in that test rehearsal to get to know you.

If your coach doesn’t ask a bunch of questions right off the bat, they might not be aligned with your vision. They should be not only asking questions and determining your troupe’s shtick, but the coach should also be offering up ideas too. After all, a great director is more than just a person to correct your space work or point out when you ignored an offer – a great coach should be a partner, a creative force that helps shape your troupe as much as any individual member.

There’s no quantifiable way to determine if a coach “gets” you. But you should also take the time to pursue it. Frankly, some very wonderful improv directors aren’t right for all troupes. Fit matters. And so take the time to ask the questions you need to. Seek the coach’s feedback. Engage!

Time Commitment
Finally, once you’ve agree to a schedule, a price, and a vision — ensure your new coach can commit to a medium- or long-term relationship. Six months seems like a good starting place. Maybe three.

But the really transformative improv work won’t take place right away; it’ll come once you’ve developed a good working relationship with your coach. That comes with time. So make sure your candidate is comfortable to committing to that time. Nobody’s signing a contract or anything, and if things don’t work out, so be it.

In the end…

None of this is rocket science. But despite its simplicity and effectiveness, a vast majority of improv troupes don’t follow a prescribed plan. They trade emails, ask their Level 5 teacher to coach them, and then just kind of wing it, week to week and month to month.

If you want to get better at improv, not only do you need a coach, you need to take your craft seriously. Just because our shows are improvised doesn’t mean our approach to our art form should be.

To hire me to coach your improv troupe in Austin, shoot me an email. I’m good and I’m affordable.

And if all else fails, just join this improv Master Class:


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