For the last 8 months (and counting), I’ve had the honor of improvising within the constructs of a roleplaying game live on Twitch every week on “Shadowrun: Corporate SINs” at Hyper RPG. Many of our fans see what we’re doing on the show and ask about how to get into improv themselves, hoping that it might enhance their own skills or the enjoyment they get out of live roleplaying.
The good news is that you’d likely see benefits from just a few classes, as opposed to needing to study improv for years. Much of advanced improv study moves into the theatricality and deeper theory behind improv – if you’re not looking to apply it in a public performance setting, you’ll probably get most of what you want from the early levels of improv study. There are a few ways to start down your own path of improv discovery – here are a few seeds to get your garden started.
Let’s get this straight: you don’t need an improv education to play RPGs, and there’s no “right” way to play RPGs. One of the first things I tell my students in beginning improv classes is that we have all been improvising since the moment we learned to listen and speak. An improv education simply teaches you how to channel those instincts into more controlled manifestations towards specific goals – whether that goal is to appear confident, to touch an audience member emotionally, or to tell a compelling story.
In particular, experience with improvisation can help roleplaying game sessions feel “tighter” and less wandering once you have an understanding of basic story structure. You can learn more tools to differentiate your characters and tools for adding to or resolving conflicts in the scope of a story. As a GM, you can learn more about creating compelling environments and how to choose “offers” for your players that elicit strong responses. And as most improv students become better listeners, your campaigns can only be helped when folks at the table become more active listeners, capable of responding in the moment rather than thinking about their next moves during the action.
Tomes of Knowledge
For many RPG players, the most comfortable place to start is books – isn’t that where all tabletop RPG journeys start?
One of the first books I recommend is The Improv Handbook. It’s a really great practical overview that straddles both the teacher and the student’s perspective. I found it invaluable when building my own Improv 100 curriculum that I’ve been teaching for a few years now, and I learned several new games and exercises from this book. The authors do a great job of putting you in a beginning student’s mindset so that you can see how their thought approach changes once they apply the lessons throughout.
There are other a few more academic books out there that are commonly recommended for improvisors. One is Keith Johnstone’s Impro: Improvisation and the Theater. This is an incredibly influential text that most improvisors read at least once in their lives. In particular, Johnstone’s writing on Status is one of the most useful revelations that students can take into their real lives beyond the stage. It’s like unlocking a small bit of understanding about the human condition. I’m re-reading it myself at the moment!
The last book I (and many, many of my compatriots) recommend to improv-curious folks is the classic Truth in Comedy. This is the first improv book I ever read, before I’d ever performed improv but had been cast in a show where I’d be doing a Harold for the first time. The Harold as described in Truth in Comedy is an excellent storytelling tool, and you’ll find that the way it brings characters together feels a little bit like an RPG campaign might. (This book had a huge impact on my life – when I signed the wall at Unexpected Productions I managed to find a scrap of space next to Del and Charna’s signatures, and I will always cherish that moment on my journey.)
Finding a Class
Books are great for providing a framework, but when it comes to improv they won’t be sufficient to permanently change the way you approach problems in the moment. Consider the problem like you might approach picking up a new sport. You can read about running, but you won’t be a better runner until you run. Repeatedly. Over and over again. Good days and bad days. Learning along the way and building muscle memory. That’s what improv class is for. But while running is a solitary sport, improv generally requires a give-and-take amongst multiple individuals. The best way to grow is to do this give and take in an environment of trust where you can take big risks, fail, and learn. In my improv 100 classes, my most important responsibility is to create that atmosphere of trust and support that allows people to experiment, learn, and grow. I also bring material, but material can be obtained from books. The safe environment for active learning is what people REALLY pay for when they come to my class.
So if you choose to pursue a beginning improv class, your biggest metric should be the school’s ability to make you feel safe and create a supportive atmosphere. Do former students speak highly of their experience? How many of them choose to either move up in the curriculum or repeat 100 because they liked it so much but aren’t looking to perform? What is the reputation of the teachers in the performing community? In later levels, “supportive” becomes “constructively critical” when you’re confident in your core abilities and looking to really focus improvements – but in those early days, a positive environment is usually the difference between continuing and quitting.
Another note – I actually think for many people, it’s easier to take a starter improv class WITHOUT your friends or coworkers. I see plenty of small groups passing through, but I’d only recommend buddying up with people you already trust. Strangely it is easier to be silly and vulnerable in front of strangers in a safe environment than it can be with people you know whose opinion you care about. In the end, almost everyone comes out of my classes as friends, even when they start out as strangers.
If you’re in the Seattle area and want to experiment with improv, of course my first recommendation will be for the company I teach with, Unexpected Productions. We offer 100-level classes on almost every night of the week in Seattle, and we also offer Tuesday nights in Redmond. I know all of the instructors personally and there is a great commitment to our teaching program at UP. We’re also the longest-running improv education program in the city. But your circumstances may also drive you to consider other programs offered by Jet City Improv and ComedySportz. Each company has their own curriculum structure, so they are not so much interchangeable as they are alternate solutions to the same problem. Many students choose to cross-train at multiple schools if they catch the improv “bug”.
If you’re looking to study with me specifically, you should follow my Facebook Actor page for announcements when I’m booked to teach – I only teach a few quarters a year due to my performing schedule. I can also be hired as a private coach.
For most of you, though, you’ll be looking for your own solutions locally. Cities like LA, Chicago and NYC have a dizzying array of options, so you may actually have more homework in front of you choosing the right beginner program. Know that many improv classes in those cities are oriented heavily towards performers. If you’re not looking to perform and just want the personal / RPG benefits, you might look specifically for programs that teach improv for the workplace or for writers. There’s nothing wrong with classes oriented towards performers; but I do find some students get intimidated when starting their improv journey from scratch alongside folks who already come from an acting background. If you find yourself in this situation, remember that you’re not competing with anyone and your journey and perspective are just as valid as theirs.
In smaller cities, if you can’t easily find improv classes at first, ask around with local theater companies (particularly during the summer) or community colleges and community centers. You’d be surprised where you might find an improv class hiding.
And if you can’t find or afford to attend a program on your own, consider starting a sort of improv book club with the others in your RPG group. Perhaps as a group you can discuss the concepts and apply them to your own games.
In a future post I’ll break down some core concepts you can look out for in these materials and classes that would be directly applicable to your own RPG gameplay sessions. For now, enjoy your first look at these improv materials that can help improve your abilities as a storyteller and roleplayer.