How to Make (and Keep) an Independent Improv Team
By: Ethan Goldman

As improv as an art-form increases in popularity, we see more and more improv teams popping up. In a major city you may find anywhere from a few dozen to upwards of thousands of improv teams. Many of the more recognizable teams are affiliated with theaters and always have a home to play at. If you are new to improv, aren’t a “networking person”, or already have friends that you want to play with, you may be interested in forming your own independent team. As anyone who has been on one of these teams knows, the most difficult part of having an independent improv team is keeping it going. A theater provides accountability, regular show opportunities and sometimes coaching. If you are the managers of your own team, you run the risk of it being de-prioritized. Life can get in the way. If you or your teammates lose focus your team will go the way of the dinosaurs: Awesome for a while, then extinct.

I have been doing improv on independent teams for over 10 years and each has been successful in its own right. For the past 5 years I have performed regularly with 9 other people who are hands down my best friends. Our group is called The MoonSharks. In 2012 myself and some very talented people with whom I attended Illinois State University decided we missed being on our college team, the Improv Mafia. We reached out to a few other friends 17 interested in improv and began rehearsing every Thursday as The MoonSharks. Since then we have performed at almost every theater in Chicago, done hundreds of short form games, at least 20 experimental long forms, played at the Chicago Improv Festival every year since our inception, led workshops, played at kids’ birthday parties, and are currently in rigorous rehearsals for a full-length improvised play we plan on putting up in the Fall of 2017. It has been an amazing time with ups and downs, great shows and terrible ones. Over the years we have watched a number of our peer “indie teams” come and go. The real secret to having a long lasting improv team is to play with people you like. You can always learn to be a better improviser, it’s much harder to learn to be less of a douche bag.

I myself have never taken a formal improv class, but I have found a way to play and not completely suck (so I am told) for the past 10 years. I am not knocking improv classes by any means. They serve the important roles of employing many improv teachers, helping pay the bills for all of the cool theaters we know and love, and providing a students with a network of peers. If you are new to your city, or want to learn (or relearn) the basic principles of improv go for it. Class it up. My gym teacher Mr. Rodriguez once said, “Be an empty tea cup. If you’re full, there is no room for more tea.” If you think of tea as knowledge, he was totally onto something. If you don’t wanna use your hard earned cash on classes, but wanna play shows and still learn stuff, here is whatcha can do.

Step 1: Assemble the Improvisers I don’t recommend doing a one-person show to start with. Improv at its core is about collaborating. So go get some peeps. Pick people you WANT to work with. Don’t pick people based on talent. Just like a real relationship, you could pick someone hot who is awesome at sex, but that person will probably not treat you as great as you deserve to be treated. Pick people who you like hanging out with that are willing to make a real commitment.

Step 2: Set Group Goals Make some group goals. Have a frank discussion with your team and talk about what you like about improv, and what you don’t like. Which style fits you all the best. Do you want to form a team that only does improvised Home Improvement episodes and is called “Home Improv-ment?” Great! Just make sure everyone else is down for that. If you don’t, you’ll end up with a team that lasts six months, until someone finally reveals they never watched home improvement growing up, and they think you and Tim Allen are both hacks!

Do you want a run of shows? Do you want to make video content? Do you want to be short form, long form it something in between? Answer these questions first, then come up with the dumb name for your team (Home Improv-ment is my idea, you can totally have it.).

Step 3: Learn The more you know, the more your characters can know. We are all always students. If you are interested in any topic I recommend researching it to the fullest extend of your intellectual curiosity. If you are smart, you can play smarter. When it comes to specific improv education I have found that often reading/watching non-improv related works can inspire me greatly.

However if you are looking for effective long form improv exercises and forms read some good improv books. A few include:

-Truth in Comedy by Del Close & Charna Halpern

-Improvise by Mick Napier

-Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book

-The Hambook

-improvencyclopedia.org is a great free online resource for exercises and short form games!

There are hundreds of books and websites not on this list that may be more helpful, or better align with your specific philosophies. Read anything and everything you find. You may not agree with all of it, but you can take exercises straight out of these books and try them at your rehearsals.

Step 4: Rehearse Pick a day of the week to DEDICATE to your group. Thursdays are always our special MoonSharks day. Even if we are all tired and sick and don’t want to practice. At least some of us will make the effort to still hangout. Many improvisers will claim you can be on upwards of 3 teams at a time. You sure can, but none of them will be as awesome as a single team where everyone is giving it 100% of their commitment. If your team wants to rehearse less than once a week, you will likely be unprepared for shows and 20 have inconsistency within your rehearsals. Feel free to do more, but a 2-3 hour rehearsal once a week should be considered a minimum for a serious team.

Deciding on what kind of team you want to be will determine how to best use your rehearsal time. Coaches/teachers serve an invaluable purpose for teams. They provide an outside eye for scenes and can identify weak decisions made in forms. Plus they will always come to rehearsal with an effective plan for how to spend the time. If you feel like you need the structure of a coach, it is a ton cheaper to have everyone on the team to chip in a little money and pay an improviser you really look up to to come to your apartment for a couple hours every week, than it is to sign up for 8 weeks of classes. You can also have a new person from outside the group lead a different workshop every week. With this method you can find out whose philosophy aligns with your group goals the best. If you find a coach you love, stick with them. If they’re not for you, you aren’t beholden to them.

That being said, you can also fill the role of “coach” by sharing the load. Take turns leading exercises, and have those sitting and watching provide feedback and analysis. You can also learn to self-analyze. This means after you finish your scene or exercise, critique yourself. What worked and what didn’t. Often hearing what your scene partner was thinking will help inform you of how to better play with them in the future. After a long form sit in a circle and discuss each scene. Breakdown what you liked, and what can be done to improve your groups choices for next time. Try a coach, guest led workshops and self-analysis and see what works best for your group. To do this, you must be able to leave your ego at the door and accept criticism from your peers as a compliment. It means they think you are a badass, and are much smarter than the choice you just made. Try not to be petty.

If we are working on something new and challenging, we will often assign two people within the group to act as “the coaches” for the week. They meet a half-hour before practice, research and choose the games that will stretch the muscles we need for the task at hand. Having two people rather than one gives them a lighter load of work, and allows both people to participate in the games and exercises they laid out while trading off hosting responsibility. Later at rehearsal everyone follows their game plan. Switch up the coaches every week, and you will always have a planned and effective rehearsal where no one is the boss of you.

Step 5: Do Shows No matter what master improviser you bring in to lead rehearsal, or whatever insight you may glean from doing a certain existential improv exercise, I promise that every show performed is 10 times as educational as every rehearsal. Even a bad show. ESPECIALLY a bad show. If you have seen a show you liked at a theater, talk to someone who works there and see if you can get your team a slot opening or playing at that space.

Don’t get so bogged down with rehearsals you forget why you wanted to do improv in the first place. No show is perfect or lasting. As such you should do as many as time will allow. Agree to every opportunity, turn your nose up at nothing. Do bar-prov. Do birthday-party-prov. If it exists, do funeral-prov. Having an actual audience is the proving ground for all that you practice for. If your brand new form that you’re testing can work, it must work in front of an audience. Remember that laughter is not always the indicator of a good show. If no one laughs during your scene, then it’s not funny. If they clap when it’s over, it was art.

Step 6: Think About the Back End There is plenty more to having a successful improv group than just being good at improv. Here are some tips I learned along the way.

Make a bank account for your group. If you are committed to your group existing for more than a year You will need a bank account, and someone to act as treasurer for it. You want to pay monthly dues so you have money saved up to afford a real rehearsal space? Bank account. You finally book a paying gig and they need to make the check out to someone? Bank account. You find a business that wants to sponsor you so you have cool uniforms that say “Kenny the Kleener” on the back? Bank account. Go to the bank where you keep your money, speak with a banker about forming an “Unincorporated Entity.” This means you can make and spend money on a small scale (I believe the limit is $8,000) without being a licensed business. It is the same tax classification as a little league baseball team and it costs no money to set up a checking account under this classification. Plus, nothing says professional like checks with little poodles on them, that also have your improv teams name on it.

Have a way to communicate online. We use a private Facebook group separate from our public Facebook page to coordinate between rehearsals. If you have notes from practice, ideas for new forms, dates for potential runs, or gifs of cats wearing sunglasses you should have a place to share them with your team. It is important to regularly check this online space for updates as it may pertain to upcoming shows and practices.

Marketing your own shows is hard, not impossible. As an indie team you will not have the support of a theater when it comes to marketing. This means delegating the jobs of marketing to anyone on your team willing and able to take them. Use what skills you have at your disposal to make marketing as easy as possible for your team. If someone knows how to use Photoshop, have them design a poster. One of you works in an office with a copy machine? Get those posters printed on the cheap. A team member has a nice video camera? Film a short promo for your show. One of your friends loves Instagram? Blast social media with your info. You sing and play ukulele? Get a street performing license and spread the word about your upcoming show through song at the park.

Step 7: Have Fun Having fun is the point. If you’re not having fun doing improv, something is wrong. Often I see phenomenally talented improvisers become bitter and jaded about the industry. All I can say is, don’t let that be you. Find friends you can play pretend with and don’t look back.