How Do You Practice Improv?

We get this question a lot.  Usually in the form If it’s made up each time, how can you practice? Since it’s Sunday, and our ComedySportz teams (both Main Stage and Minor League) practice on Sunday, I thought it would be appropriate for today’s entry. 

The reality is that you can practice, or even rehearse (Google dictionary claims they’re synonyms) without wanting the outcome to be the same each time.  Perhaps because people often associate the word rehearsal with scripted theater (where you typically want the outcome consistent), they don’t get how an improv comedy group could rehearse or practice.  But many jazz bands rehearse even though they might improvise some of the music differently each time.  And plenty of sports teams practice without the outcome being the same each time.

I think it can also help to consider an artistic endeavor in terms of two main components, Art and Craft.  I first heard this concept when many years ago I went to see the popular author Barry Eisler read from his latest John Rain novel (a very enjoyable series for readers who enjoy somewhat more realistic, but still exciting espionage fiction.  It was also, memorably, the first time he was allowed to publicly confirm his experience as an actual CIA field agent).  Eisler explained that Art is inherent to the creator – one’s imagination, one’s view of the world, how one wants to represent the world, and so on.  For example, famous painters Monet, Picasso, and Mondrian, all considered great and groundbreaking artist, chose to represent the world in very different ways.  Art cannot and should not be taught.  Craft, however, refers to teachable skills and knowledge.  For painters, it might involve how to mix paints, how to represent three dimensions on a flat surface, and so on.

Monet

Monet

Picasso

Picasso

Mondrian

Mondrian

Art within improv is basically what the performer wants to create or express.  Craft refers to skills and techniques she uses to express her Art.  Craft might include how to use one’s body or voice to develop unique characters.  Or how to incorporate random information injected into an existing scene, i.e., justification.  It might be how to play a specific improv game like Forward – Reverse or how to use heightening in a pattern based long form scene.

So when we meet to practice ComedySportz, for example, we practice specific skills, games, techniques.  But the content or output still changes every time.  Sometime we use special exercises to hone our craft.  Sometime we just do what we do in a show, just not in front of an audience.  We practice because we want to be good at our craft so we can express our art.

Oh, and another reason we practice?  It’s fun.  We get to laugh.  A lot.