In this week’s Recommended Reads, Prof. John King, who teaches screen writing and creative writing, recommends “The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual” by Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh.
Teaching is part performance. To be an effective teacher, you need to be able to perform in front of people in a way that engages them and keeps them interested. Effective teaching requires skilled presentation, quick thinking, and frequent adjustments.
If you can think on your feet and work with diverse audiences, and if you can develop public speaking skills that help you maintain an audience’s attention, then you’re helping yourself as a teacher. A dash of humor doesn’t hurt, either.
Improvisational comedy works the same way. That’s why “The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual” is so useful to my strategies in the classroom.
Anti-Fuddy-Duddy Disclaimer: Obviously, teaching isn’t an improv comedy show. We’re not here merely to make students laugh and send them home smiling. That’s not the point. This stuff helps me, but your mileage may vary.
Even in a regular, semester-long college class with a consistent roster of students, each day is different. I can create a lesson plan, but when the unexpected happens — someone asks a question I hadn’t considered, or asks me to revisit previous content, or suddenly the technology doesn’t work or a fire alarm goes off — my best laid lesson plan can fall apart. Studying improv helps me adjust to the unexpected and recover quickly.
This book opens with a look at the most basic improv principle: “Yes, And,” which refers to the concept that when performing, we should agree with our scene partners while adding new information to the scene.
This is similar to everyday teaching practices such as answering questions and resolving student concerns: “Yes, we covered Topic A last week, so now we’re building on that with Topic B”; or “Yes, I understand you’re concerned with how class is going for you, and I want to help”; or “Yes, that’s a good question, and here’s how it ties to what we’re discussing.” These are just a few examples.
I get plenty of random, unexpected questions, so I try to say “Yes” and then connect my response to the material. That’s so much more useful than saying, “No, that’s not relevant. Let’s get back to doing what I planned.” Improv is about agreement, not denial. I’m challenging myself to do the same thing in the classroom.
The UCB Manual also stresses the importance of listening to scene partners — take what they offer and build on the scene. In this way, improv is a lot like a creative writing workshop. Student writers must listen to the feedback they receive when they share their writing, and in turn, use the feedback to build on their work. This doesn’t mean they should take everyone’s prescribed suggestion, but they should at least listen, and use feedback as a point of departure to make the writing (or the scene) more effective.
Play to “the top of your intelligence” is another of the book’s myriad lessons. This doesn’t mean players should try to outsmart everybody or rattle off arcane trivia to show a personal level of expertise with a given subject. This just means that our characters should respond truthfully to any stimulus within the scene to create an honest, emotional moment. This concept is directly applicable to writing effective, realistic characters in fiction, non-fiction, and screenwriting. If we write to the top of our intelligence, then we allow ourselves to create characters that respond in a realistic way.
From there, the book becomes a manual for how to do long-form improvisation, which is improv as narrative, using various examples to help the reader learn how to find “the game” of a scene (i.e. the unusual thing that’s funny, and how to build on that). Eventually, the book examines the “Harold” — the long form style Del Close pioneered — as well as additional styles of note. Though not all of this text is applicable to teaching, so many parallels exist that I can’t help thinking about them in this way.
Improv has been an on-again/off-again hobby of mine for many years, dating back to when I performed with a BSU student troupe as an undergraduate. When I became a faculty member, the troupe asked me to serve as faculty advisor, so not only do I get to use improv skills in the classroom, but I also get to put these concepts to use when advising student performers. Exploring improv at this phase of my life and career helps me see the connections between teaching, writing, and improvisation.
Laying a foundation that reinforces much of the lessons from other great improv books such as Viola Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theater and Mick Napier’s Improvise, The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual takes a practical, straightforward approach to studying improvisation that has direct application to my teaching and advising.
Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh. The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual. Comedy Council of Nicea. 2013.