My Fantasy Improv School: Part 1

I’m taking improv classes again, this time at ColdTowne Theater, and last night was our second week. (Here’s the post about Week 1.)

The entrepreneur in me can’t help but design my fantasy improv school and theater—i.e., what I’d do if I were in charge. Here’s what I have so far:

1. The Hours

There are four primary improv theaters in Austin, Texas:

  • ColdTowne does two-hour classes for eight weeks—totaling 16 hours.
  • Merlin Works, where I also took classes, does eight weeks of 2.5-hour classes—totaling 20 hours.
  • The Hideout does six weeks of three-hour classes—totaling 18 hours.

While they’re all pretty good deals, I’d adopt the Hideout approach, which allows for fewer weeks but longer sessions. Merlin and TIT both end up offering more hours, and 2.5 hours is a nice bump in time. But the difference between two and three hours is significant, especially in the early levels when students might be slow moving and hesitant.

Question-circle2For example, last night our class did the Question Circle, where one person steps into the middle of the group and is asked a question by every person in class. I love this exercise, even when it prompts me to reveal something embarrassing. (Last night, one guy asked how old my shoes were, and another asked me how I feel about having a lot of body hair. Come to think of it, some of those questions seemed needlessly mean!)

Anyhoo, in a class of about 14, the exercise took about 70 minutes. It probably shouldn’t take longer than 30-40. But so many of my classmates are brand new to this, and are, understandably, reticent to speak out. So the game plodded along, despite our instructor’s best attempts to speed it up.

Thus, more than half of the class was spent on this single game. In a three-hour class, we would’ve had almost two hours remaining—plenty of time to dig in to other exercises.

The other advantage of longer class time is being able to knock it out in six weeks instead of eight, meaning you can complete you six-level education in 36 weeks instead of 48—a full three months earlier!

2. Cost

This issue is almost a push, as all of the theaters in town charge roughly the same amount, give or take $25. They all come in right around $200 per class. Not too shabby. And almost all of them offer ways to defray the cost—payment plans, internships, early registration discounts, etc.

miser11In an effort to remain a miser, I almost signed up as an intern at ColdTowne, which would’ve sliced my Level 1 fee in half. But on top of the intern schedule conflicting with my personal/show schedule, it worked out to about 40 hours of “work.” To be fair, the work is both simple and educational—including time in the tech booth and the chance to watch a bunch of free improv shows. But saving $100 wasn’t worth giving up every Friday night for eight weeks. Tuesdays? Sure. Who gives a fuck about Tuesdays?!? But Fridays are Andrew time. It’s when I do most of my needlepoint.

If I were opening a theater, I’d consider keeping my costs at the high end. I don’t think prospective students would choose one theater over another based on a difference of $25 or so. In fact, most of my conversations with my fellow students and improvisers suggests most people choose their first improv school based on “online reviews” and “location.” People want something near their house that doesn’t suck. And if you figure: $25 x 10 students x 4 classes per month x 10 months (a conservative estimate) … that extra $25 would work out to $10,000 more per year.

3. Class Size

Last week I expressed some amazement at how many people were in the first session of my Level 1—approximately 20, i.e., 17 bearded Austin dudes (myself included) and three lovely ladies.

Last night, though, it was a much more manageable size, as some people had switched over to the Saturday edition of Level 1. While I didn’t mind 20 people (because I’m Batman) I think other students did. And in the relatively small classroom, the body heat made it a stuffy affair. Last night felt cooler, breezier, and more cohesive. We felt like we began to gel.

I’ve spoken about the issue of class size on this blog before, suggesting that any workshop with more than 12 people was cheating its students. But that was about one-off workshops. In a multi-week class, I think you can bump the number up a bit, right around where my current class is at 14-ish. I think surprassing 14 is probably dicey, though.

If someone were to ask me what to consider when selecting an improv class, I’d ask them why they’re signing up. If it’s to gain confidence and some public speaking skills, I’d point them toward any of the four main theaters, regardless of how big their classes get.

If they were interested in a specific type of improv, I’d point them toward a theater that teaches that type—and I’d encourage them to inquire about class size, because it directly affects how often they’ll get stage time.

4. Outside of Class

After class last night most of us went down to The Grand for drinks. I love this part of being a student, the bonding and socializing. When I was a noob a couple of years ago, sitting outside Contigo with my teacher (Shana Merlin) and my classmates went a long way toward making me feel comfortable when in class. It illustrated that we’re all just people, none of us are scary assholes, and we’re here to have a good time. I think some of the “shy” students in my current class will seem less so next week after sharing a couple of pitchers of beers with us.

obama_beer1

So far, every school I’ve attended (three so far) encourage post-class fun, usually at a bar. And usually everybody comes. This is where the real work of connecting and developing trust takes place, not in class. Because in class we’re in “student mode”—trying to pay attention, take in everything, and do good work. But when lounging at a dive bar your real personality tends to emerge, and everyone gets a sense of what you’re really about.

Also, beer.

There’s a lot more for me to say about how I’d design an improv school, including the biggest consideration of all: CURRICULUM. I’ll save that topic for an upcoming post, because it deserves a lot more space and room to spread out.

But I’m curious: How would YOU design the perfect improv class?

5 Comments

  1. Kevin Miller (@happywaffle) on June 11, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    Yowch. The catty dismissiveness towards The New Movement is a little much. I’ve got some issues with their policy of exclusivity, but they’ve gotten a lot more open in the last year or two, and (choosing my words carefully) I have no negative feelings about a single TNM improviser in Austin. There’s some very nice, very funny folks over there.

  2. PaGeN8 on June 11, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    The Money? I am too old to care. Perhaps that is rude, but for me it is not a significant factor.

    The Class Size? I do want some time in front getting feedback, but not everyone learns the way I do. I think I learn well from watching and then just trying it out.

    After Class, until Improv, I rarely participated in the parties at Work, Church or in Ultimate. But in Improv, I want to discuss, deconstruct, compare, contrast and reconfigure everything! Plus being connected is a function of playing well together in Improv.

    The Hours, oh about the Hours! Around level 3, I wanted to know why there were not more levels and if they offered intensives! I wanted it all and I wanted it now! I was more than a sponge. I wanted every drop poured on me knowing most would not sink in, but I just wanted to be immersed. My first Intensive, I was so wired the whole time, I am sure I scared folks. Classes should be 6 days a week for 8-10 hours per day!

    I don’t dwell on the idea of how I would run the world, but if I ran an Improv Theater I would want to do it as a service. To turn people on to the art form and get people to come out and watch Improv.

    I think I would not be an Imp if Todd and Sheena had not taken classes first. I would never have indulged in my first show nor thought for a second I could (or would want to do it.) So marketing is key. Getting people in, on stage and telling their friends about it.

    I would suck at the Business part. Mostly, because I am not a miser and I want everyone to have fun and succeed. As a guy who consults on million dollar projects and teach people to manage budgets for said efforts, I want to see the books for all the theaters. Not to change anything or that I can do it better, but to see what they look like. What does it take? Where does the money come from? Where are your big expenses. Do they make money on this more than that?

    Ok – so yea, since about Hideout Level 3 I started wondering, how do you run a theater? Still wondering, but really glad you posted this blog Andrew!

    • Andrew on June 11, 2013 at 4:03 pm

      What a fantastic summary, Paul. We all learn slightly differently, true. But when it comes to something like improv, lecture can do only so much. Only by doing, and drilling, do I think we can finally hammer it ALL the way home. Just as you can’t learn to play jazz piano by reading books about jazz piano. 🙂

  3. bensageek on April 4, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    these things are awesome,simple nice

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