Failing forward – teaching the basic principles of improvisation

by Tara Brodin | 1 September 2014

Great improvisers and comedians don’t go for a joke at the cost of a solid story.

Improvisation is one of the most intimidating art forms for students to learn. The fear of failure is heightened because of improvisation’s spontaneous nature and the pressure to be funny can derail any hope of it. Therefore, improvisation is difficult to teach because it requires a lot of scaffolding and gentle guidance before students begin to do the actual scene work. Teaching improvisation should allow students the freedom to play in a way so that they can create successful scenes and be funny. This article outlines the basic techniques of improvisation and my experience with teaching them. Most of these techniques can be useful when teaching or performing other forms of comedy as well.

Find the fun in failing
Recently, I asked a student of mine what the most important learning was from the improvisation unit. He said: “I learned to fail forward”. I teach my students that failing to create a successful scene is the fastest way to improve and move forward. Even skilled performers fail because improvisation is unscripted and therefore risky. The art of improvisation invites us to embrace failure and to reframe our relationship with it.

Unleashing the comedic potential in students happens when they feel they have a safe landing place in the ensemble. One of my first improvisation teachers, Patti Stiles of Canada’s improvisation company Rapid Fire Theatre said: “Our mantra will be: I suck and I love to fail.” By admitting that we may not be very good at improvisation removes the pressure to be brilliant.

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