The Trouble With Workshops

I love a good improv workshop. I loathe a bad one.  I’ve been to both.

And here’s what I think separates them…

Class Size

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A good workshop (of almost any sort) will keep the class size as small as possible. For an improv workshop, I’d cap it at 10, though seven or eight is ideal. When you travel north of 10 attendees, the return on your investment drops off sharply. I’d love to conduct a scientific study that quantifies this (thanks for the budget cuts, OBAMACARE!), but my experience tells me that 10 is a good number.

For example, as much crowing as I’ve done about the 3 For All intensive workshop I attended a couple of months ago, it was about 14 people, with another three or four “auditing.” I felt as if I got very little stage practice over those two days, primarily because there were too many other people who needed their share.

The Do:Talk Ratio

Ideally, the ratio of doing improv to talking about doing improv should be 80:20.

In other words, in a two-hour class, students should be on their feet practicing something for about an hour-and-a-half—or 100 minutes out of 120 total.

As a recent (and future) improv student, I think I can speak for most of you when I say: there is nothing more frustrating than a teacher who talks too much. You’re sitting there in the classroom, the instructor is lecturing about Whatever Concept, and you’re shaking your leg and biting your nails, itching to jump up there and just try the thing they keep droning on about.

Don’t get me wrong: lecturing plays an important role. Before we can practice something we want to understand what that “something” is. And often, the act of talking about a topic often reveals new philosophies or opinions.

But over-lecturing is pernicious in many improv workshops.

Additionally, workshop instructors should limit the Q&A. This isn’t a PowerPoint seminar; we don’t need to know precisely where to click. We need to practice while being directed by the teacher. That’s what will stick; not a stream-of-consciousness about what “Yes Anding” is. Improv teachers are notorious for being kind, supportive human beings (Fuckers.) As such, they’re not eager to interrupt a student or end a question-and-answer session. It’s almost antithetical to their entire art form to do so.

But teachers, you must must must shut down the conversation. It is an epic time suck and rarely leads somewhere more helpful than actually hopping up and doing the damn thing would.

Cost

This is America. We like money here. And so I’m not about to criticize improv workshops for their cost. It’s my choice whether to spend my money, and improv teachers are allowed to set their prices wherever they’d like—or whatever the “market will bare.” The value of anything is whatever someone’s willing to pay for it, right?

No, instead I’m going to urge us who are deciding where to spend our discretionary income to investigate what we’re getting for our money.

For example, I didn’t blink at paying $200 for the 3 For All Workshop—based on the show of theirs I’d seen alone. I knew nothing about their curriculum or schedule or expertise as teachers. Two-hundred bucks for 12 hours with those three gurus? Sure thing.

But I should’ve investigated further too. The money was absolutely worth it. (As was the P-Graph Narrative Intensive, which was longer and less expensive.) But I’ve taken a couple that weren’t worth it—for some of the reasons listed above, but also because I signed up without learning enough.

Going forward, before I sign up for any improv class (because I’m not yet drowning in skrilla, yo) I’m going to ask three questions:

1. Is there a class curriculum? If so, can I see it?

Not having at least a “rough” curriculum would worry me. Just because improv is invented on the spot doesn’t mean teaching it should be.

2. What is the maximum number of students who’ll be in class each week?

Again, I’d be wary of anything over 10. Though please note that this rule doesn’t necessarily apply to traditional improv classes—i.e. a few hours per week over the course of 6-8 weeks. In those longer classes we’re able to get plenty of time onstage. (Though teachers should still try to obey the 80:20 Do/Talk Ratio!)

3. Are there any materials to go with the class?

The answer will probably be “no.” And while that’s certainly not a disqualifier, I’ve never attended an improv class that included hand-outs—and that’s always baffled me.

My career is in adult education, training, and e-learning. And every day I’m asked by clients for something tangible to take away from our class. It doesn’t even have to be long or comprehensive; it just has to be.

Yet never once can I remember a teacher handing our class a list of “Top 50 Improv Warm-Ups” or “Johnstone’s Thoughts on Status” or “The 7-Part Story Spine” or “Ways to Get Into Character” or “Space Work Practice Exercises” or etc. You get the idea? It’s a simple, super cheap value-add to students; and they will love you for it. (It’s take-away marketing too!)

2 Comments

  1. Kevin Miller (@happywaffle) on May 2, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    Teachin’ my first Hideout elective in a few weeks, this was all useful advice. (Now, to design a hand-out…)

    • Andrew on May 2, 2013 at 1:04 pm

      Sweet! What’s your elective? My Wednesdays just cleared up.

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