I sat nervously in iO's Cabaret Theater with 16 other students. Brand new to both Chicago and improv I didn't know the way around my neighborhood, let alone an improv stage. I was lucky enough to meet one person from orientation that I was able to talked to, but nothing could calm my nerves. I wanted desperately for this first class to go well. To show the entire class and the instructor how funny I was. To validate why I moved to this city and prove to myself that I was a great improvisor.
This is probably the worst thing in the world you could do to yourself when trying to learn improv. Improv is extremely difficult and takes forever to master. Putting that much pressure on yourself the first class is ridiculous. Sure some people are naturally better than others, but even becoming an average improvisor takes a lot of work. You should expect to fail and even strive to fail in scenes. That's the only way to get better. If you try so hard to be good right away you're not going to learn anything and you're just going to make yourself look like a jerk.
My first class was a disaster. After it was over I went over every scene that I was in in my head. I thought about every stupid mistake I made and how I could have fixed it. The main problem was I was trying to fix things that I had no real idea how to fix. I was a level 1 student taking improv for the first time. I should have just played freely and let the instructor do the "grading". I put so much pressure on myself that there was no way I could succeed. I made the same mistakes that many other first time improvisors do when they want to be the best improvisor ever. I wish I had someone to talk to before my first class. That's why I'm sharing these tips now. None of these are really mine and were told to me by either improv teachers or coaches. So they get all the credit (but really they probably got them the same way).
This is one of the first rules I learned and it was drilled into my head by my iO level 3 teacher, Jason Shotts. Everyone in that room with you is funny. Being funny isn't what it takes to become a great improvisor and trying to be funny is the worst thing you can do. Be yourself in a scene and just go with the flow. If you're a funny person your natural choices will be funny and you don't need to try. Plus the audience knows when you're trying and it makes it much more difficult to get a laugh.
As improvisors we don't have the luxury of going over our lines and working on our emotions in a scene. We have to play emotional to what is said on stage right then and there. You can't do this if you're too busy trying to act like a character. You have to listen to what your scene partner is saying and react to it. I really didn't follow this rule until after I finished classes at iO. So many times I was stuck in a mindset at the start of the scene and didn't react to what my scene partner was saying. Listening to someone and then coming back with a strong emotional reaction will always get you a bigger laugh than trying to come up with something funny to say.
When you're doing a specific improv exercise or game stick to the rules of that game/exercise. So many students are trying to hard to make it a good scene and they break the rules. Most exercises specifically make it near impossible to have a good scene. They have you focus on one aspect of improv like a relationship or object work so you can work on that "muscle" in your head. The goal is to get stronger at that specific thing so when you do put together a full scene it becomes muscle memory.
You're not going to be great at improv right away and you can only take in so much information while learning. Taking 4 classes at the same time won't help you. You need time to let information sink in and you need more stagetime outside of class to practice. Because of this I don't recommend taking more than two improv classes at once. Personally I like taking one class at a time and then when ready starting an independent team so you can get some stagetime. This allows you to learn the proper techniques in class and then practice them in front of an audience.
A lot of people are happy with their current group of friends so they don't make an effort become friends with their classmates. The problem with doing this is it's a lot easier to improvise with people that you know and can trust. Even just going out for a beer after class with your peers will end up going a long way. The more comfortable you are with the person you're on stage with the easier it will be to let go and just enjoy the scene. Good improv teams don't just practice once a week, but go out of their way to hang out with each other and be in each others lives.
I know I've said it a thousand times on this blog, but "yes and" is the number one rule of improv. The fastest way to tell if someone is new is if they break this rule. So the sooner you realize this rule the better. So many new improvisors come into a scene with an idea for what it should be and try to control everything. When you do this you'll end up saying no to things and trying to correct your scene partner. It's not your job to control the scene. It's your job to "yes and" the scene and have some fun.
Typically the first three lines in a scene are the most important. This is where you get most of your information on what the scene is about or what kind of "game" you can play. So many new improvisors will find something funny in a scene, but just throw it away because they think they can find something funnier. If you do this you'll be 3 minutes into a scene before you make any progress and the audience is just left to sit there and watch you throw away ideas. Take what you find and immediately run with it. You'll be surprised at how much fun it is.
I could probably write 1,000 more, but I'm going to take my own advice and take it slow. Seriously, just go out there and have fun. Expect to fail and don't be upset when you do fail. It's a process that takes a lot of time and it's almost impossible to master. Even the best, most experienced improvisors have bad shows. You're allowed to have a bad class or twenty.