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Starting in 2002, Billy Merritt (of Ninja, Robot, Pirate fame) started writing what he called “Billy Merrit’s Improv Party.” It started as a story to share his thoughts on improv and turned into a full-blown thread of awesome improv tips.

I definitely recommend reading the entire thing (though it is a bit lengthy at 50 posts). It was originally posted on the Improv Resource Center. If you haven’t checked it out, it’s probably the most active forum on improv out there.

Note: I’ve fixed some spelling and grammatical errors, but everything comes from Billy. I’ve bolded tips that particularly resonate with me.

50 Improv Tips from Billy Merritt’s Improv Party

  1. Every scene has a sound track to it. All scenes have rhythm. Some scenes rock out like Rush. Some scenes hit you like the Call of the Valkries.
  2. The Harold is a musical in a sense, You have the Overture, three songs that you revisit and a couple of rousing dance numbers.
  3. You cannot effectivly play any GAME in any scene unless you know who you are and where you are.
  4. Don’t sever your connections to the outside world, don’t become totally isolated in the community we have created, if you do, you will implode. We are conduits. We observe, take in, and record into our sense memory. We then take that information and release it on the stage. Using our improv skills we make that information dance, sing, and jump through hoops. If you stop collecting information you just have hoops.
  5. It’s a lot of work only if you make it alot of work. With each line of dialog your character’s history becomes more clear, the more clear it becomes, the easier the choices become.
  6. Wit is not something you just have, it is something that you must earn. You must earn it everyday [by continuing to learn].
  7. Everybody has an opinion, so every character you portray should have an opinion. You start with an opinion and eventually it grows into a philosophy.
  8. When in doubt talk about philosophy.
  9. You become an improviser, once you feel you have it down enough that you can improvise with anyone at any time.
  10. You can’t eliminate all bad habits. Sometimes you have to break the rules in order to further the scene and go where you never thought you could.
  11. Don’t be afraid of the unknown, don’t play it safe. How else will you make discoveries. 
  12. When a scene is started you tend to ask yourself who are these people, where are these people, and what is happening? But do you ever ask when are these people?
  13. There is no heightening from blue, just more blue.
  14. The most important thing is the Moment. You do all that work so that you can be in the “Moment.”
  15. We need to check in with each other every now and then so that we all know what is going on, but we don’t need to do it all the time.
  16. You can have a plot, but you don’t need to talk about it.
  17. How can you expect to do an improvisational scene without really knowing the people in the scene. Once you know the people, the information flows all over the scene.
  18. Not knowing where you are going to go in a scene yet knowing that it is going to come out all right is the core of great improv.
  19. Having said all that, of course there is plot in improvisation, and most of the time it works really well. But when it works well, it is not because of the players playing to the plot. It is because of the players playing to each other and to the scene at hand.
  20. Let the story come to you , don’t go looking for the story.
  21. Any chance that you can place personal items into the scenes with you, do it. Make it personal, it grounds you to the scene, and it grounds you to the truth.
  22. You should always walk away from an improv session and ask yourself, what have I learned, how can I use this information, how can I keep this information with me until I need it.?
  23. Improvisation is an art form. Anyone can paint a picture, a good picture. But it takes more than being able to paint, to be a great artist, it takes patience, it takes observation, it takes an ability to learn when there is nothing left to learn.
  24. Performing is art, it is about a sense of play, it is about growing and being allowed to fail. Producing is about business, it is about attendance, advertising, financial success. Get your art down first, develop confidence in your art , then focus on the production. Never let the production override your art. That is bad business.
  25. You repeat back to your partner what you feel is important in what they just said, then both of you know whats important in the conversation you are having.
  26. In acting you are told that your “being” comes from 4 places. The Head, The Heart, The Stomach, The Groin. Acting from the groin, that it is all about taking action. To find something in your scene to fuck, to engage, to become a part of. Coming from the gut, what does that mean? It means to react, to listen, to be affected. To act from the heart, is to act with emotion. To act with emotion is to feel the words that you are saying.
  27. It is all about being observant, seeing things and always in the back of your head saying to yourself, I can use this in a scene.
  28. To act from your head is to get in touch with your inner Robot.
  29. Getting your brain programmed for “Don’t Think” takes years of preparation
  30. An edit is not the end, it is the beginning of something new. 
  31. The key to improvisation is patience. You will not learn everything in a year, two years, 10 years. You will never learn all there is to know, once you realize that, it becomes easier to enjoy the ride. Enjoying the ride shows patience, patience is the key.
  32. Relationship and game are one in the same.
  33. Your relationship is constantly defined with each exchange of dialog. Knowing your relationship defines what you will say next, the more you know the more you have to say.  Your relationship with the location will also dictate what you will do in the scene. Relationship also has to do with object work.
  34. Finding the game is finding the pattern. All scenes have patterns. Patterns are structure. Structure is Game. 
  35. It is important to remember to look for the first unusual thing within the reality of the scene, not the reality of the actors.
  36. Words are the least important thing when it comes to communicating.
  37. It is the struggle to survive that makes living so much fun. 
  38. Rage is not about anger, it is about passion.  Never lose your rage, keep it inside like sushi. Eat it when you need to. Rage drives you, pirates make you alive, minjas make you take action, and The robots make sense of it all.
  39. What your character believes to be true can only be heightend if the oppisite is true for someone else. Philosophies must be compared with each other so that we the audience can decide for ourselves.
  40. You must constantly look for the balance in everything you do onstage, once you find the balance, then unbalance it. Create a pattern then break it. In that you will find the truth.
  41. I don’t have talent, I earned talent. 
  42. Success is Talent meeting Opportunity.
  43. Every scene you improvise should have a Rosebud in it. Something that grounds your character into the scene, makes you take notice of your life, allows you to evaluate yourself in the place that you are at.
  44. The moment you step on that stage, you own it, you are meant to be there and they were meant to watch you. That is the meaning of Stage Presence.  Stage Presence is simply the confidence to be where you are. 
  45. “Humor is not jokes. It is an attitude toward being alive without which you would long ago have jumped off the 59th street bridge. Humor is not being funny. It is the coin of exchange between human beings that makes it possible for us to get through the day. Humor exists even in the humorless.” – Michael Shurtleff
  46. The scene is already there before you do it. The characters have been living their lives, going to work, playing, falling in and out of love. You are just showing one moment in their lives, hopefully the funny ones. But it may not be funny to the characters at that time. You must play that real. If you play it real you will discover the humor in these peoples lives.
  47. Yesing a scene does not make a scene go further, it is the “And” that breathes life into the scene.
  48. There are over 100 performers that play on the UCB stage every week, of those 100 how many have given back to the space? Have painted anything? Repaired something? Lit an incense?
  49. What is a moment in scenework? The moment is something that the characters, created in the scene, will remember for the rest of their lives.
  50. Discovery = Truly not knowing were the scene is going to go, taking your idea and your scene partner’s idea and creating something both of you had not intended. Don’t drop your idea, meld it into another.

Instructor: Armando Diaz
Date Taken: July 2011

The final class of the Magnet Improv Conservatory is a Team Performance Workshop. You get 6-weeks of classes and then 8-weeks of shows with the same team. The team-specific nature of the class didn’t lend itself to taking too many general improv notes, but there were a few gems that stood out.

To learn more about the Magnet Training program, go here

Class Notes

  • you dont want your pieces to be monotonous. if youre noticing a lot of verbal initiations, mix it up with physicality.
  • there is no retreat. victory is all we have. once you commit keep going until you are edited. you dont go into an opening or a scene thinking its going to last for X seconds or minute.
  • heightening leads to discovery. its what earns the edit.
  • dont reduce your vocabulary to just words.
  • explore the consequences of your characters’ behavior.
  • We don’t want more object work, we want specific object work.
  • Look to expand on things, instead of just repeating something from the opening. It keeps you from feeling locked into what was said/done initially.

Instructor: Armando Diaz
Date Taken: October 2010

Level 5 at the Magnet focuses on creating an improv revue—four shows that your team does together. I went back to my normal heavy note-taking ways for this class, but can you blame me? It was Armando Diaz teaching!

To learn more about the Magnet training program, go here.

Class #1

  • the goal of the class is to learn how to put on an entire show (from start to finish)
  • the attitude you want to have is that anyone off the street should be able to come in and enjoy themselves (not just other improvisers)
  • if you have a bad show, dont give an excuse as to why
  • nobody is so good that they should be an asshole to people
  • key focus of forms:
  • montage—fast paced, higher energy
  • monoscene—pov and committed character
  • time-dash—how time affects characters
  • freeze tag—trust your instincts, visual, commitment
  • initiations are a reaction to something that happens in a scene that we dont see (start in the middle)
  • simplicity is always appreciated
  • good improvisers trust in just being… (no need to always talk)
  • concept alone isnt theater. concept with an attitude is
  • great players are calm and patient and wait for inspiration
  • listen well, internalize and think about how you can connect to the other person
  • the goal of the first beat of the monoscene is to create the world the scene will take place in
  • the difference between a monoscene and group game in a harold is that you have more time for different characters to play varied povs (wheras in a group game a lot of times youll all have the same attitude)
  • your object work should be specific enough that it tells the audience who you are without you needing to speak
  • every scene is about one truthful thing

 Class #2

  • often times the funniest thing to do is be vulnerable
  • be affected by what people say
  • be your experience, dont state it
  • most premises have been done. it’s the specifics that differentiate them. take the idea and personalize it
  • WHO you are is so much more important than the premise of a scene
  • Del’s “the third thought”—get past the trivial, go to the deeper thought
  • when on stage, you shouldnt be thinking as an improviser, you should be thinking as the characters youre playing
  • discovery in a scene is an awesome thing
  • monoscenes feel counter-intuitive because each character should have their own thing. especially as a walk-on, dont give in to the feeling you should be a character to heighten someone elses game, have your own character and then youll help others play their game while youre playing yours
  • its like a potluck—everyone has to bring something different in order for it to stay lively

Class #3

  • every character has a pov and it’s often defined in the first thing you say or do. if you get lost, go back to what you did first in a scene
  • actions speak louder than words, dont forget your object work
  • EXPERIENCE THINGS ON STAGE
  • spontaneity (discovery) is the drug of improv
  • star trek—orignal series was fun because they experienced what was happening. later generations were just people logically thinking about it and coming up with a resolution. be Kirk, not Picard? Screw it or kill it.

Class #4

  • follow your character’s pov and motivation
  • the real genius players remember how they started and stay committed to it
  • there are different “sized” ways of playing a game. sometimes youll need a sledge hammer, sometimes youll need a paint brush.
  • theres a difference between heightening and increasing. increasing just adds more stuff; heightening is specific to your character and pov and playing more of that
  • in a good scene, both characters have a pov (and game)
  • specifics are very important when it comes to heightening or additional game moves. e.g. language that was used is very important
  • if you know how you feel, you dont have to analyze as much
  • pov is one of the most important things to make sure you understand—it will take you the furthest and make your scenes easier
  • if you arent sure how you should be reacting, get specific and that will help inform you

Class #5

  • emotion can be a pov.
  • each action your scene partner makes heightens your emotion. you know that is the case so the only “work” you have to do is justifying your emotional reactions
  • play for competence (have your characters be smart). to play “bad” is harder than “trying” but “fail”
  • the more truthful we are the easier things will be
  • dont play in the middle
  • a scene is initiation -> reaction -> justification

Class #6

Guest Instructor: Christian Capozzoli

  • physicality is king, emotion is queen – joe bill
  • every gift should be treated as such, have a reaction to it, state what is, give specifics
  • characters should be hypersensitive to their pov
  • if you have a really talky first scene, then you gotta play the 2nd beat even more actively

Class #7

  • play game harder. dont wait for other people to help you play game, make the moves yourself more
  • physicality is king and can buy you some time to speak

Show #1

  • be ready on the edits
  • each character had a sense of history which is really good
  • whenever someone comes out, make sure you react to that person

Class #8

  • dont be so concerned with plot moves, allow yourself to play in the emotion you give yourself
  • remember CROW—character, relationship, objective, where
  • dont forget to express your philosophy and circumstances in between game moves to heighten each move
  • two behaviors overlapped is the relationship.
  • even when you have strong game scenes, there should be a strong relationship. all scenes are relationship-based regardless of how strong the game is.

Show #2

  • specificty of game is important. look to your first scene that gives you the details

Show #3

  • dont change your character in 2nd beats.
  • be careful of adding too much importance to a detail from the previous scene; by talking about it again it makes it more important than it needs to be
  • its about your personality more than anything else.
  • you never want to be an improvisors wanting people to do something. put more focus on reacting
  • edit on an emotion and dont be scared to leave what happens to the audience’s imagination

Show #4

  • be careful of using nondescript gifts, hammer them out in first beats so you can play with them
  • gift your scene partner because that will give you something to react to
  • for second beats dont close the door to discovery, especially if youre first beat established a weirdness. play with the gift you gave yourself for having fun

Instructor: Blaine Swen
Date Taken: August 2010

For DCM 2010, Blaine Swen (founder / performer of Improv Shakespeare and 1-man musical improv show Bash!) offered a 3-hour workshop that focused on 1-person musical improv scenes.

Here are the notes from the workshop.

Class Notes

  • 3 important points of improv: pov, dialog and emotional dialog
  • come out and find a point of concentration. that point will affect you emotionally which create your pov and then drive your dialog.
  • have to rely on the truth that improv is magic.
  • trust that if you react to the moment, moment to moment, and the map (plot) will happen
  • when i dont know what to say in a scene, i think of what my pov is and then say “i feel …”
  • you also have to relax and play
  • the only way you fail in this is if you give into your anxiety to the audience
  • practice patience not panic
  • theres a fine line between pov and projection (dont project on to someone else what they have to be). you give yourself a great gift just by telling your partner how you feel
  • songs should explore your pov and emotion, not the plot of the scene.
  • pov can be expressed through object work and expression
  • improv audiences do a lot of the work for you. they connect the dots for you. you can relieve yourself of the burden of the work
  • singing about your feelings is so much easier than trying to sing a song about story or plot.
  • for songs, boil down your pov into a thesis statement and thats the title and focus of your song
  • emotional reaction is a huge gift to your scene partner.

Instructor: Dave Jadico (CSz Philadelphia)
Date Taken: July 2010

Every year, ComedySportz has a tournament where all of the city teams get together to play, take workshops and hang out. This workshop was part of ComedySportz Tournament 2010 and covers spacework, for both shortform and longform improv.

Workshop Notes

  • Every time you touch an object, the audience has a better visual of it
  • Breaking a pattern with object work can help inform your scene and how your character is feeling
  • Iconic Representation—the one object work movement you do that will tell you the object or the activity
  • The audience likes to feel smart. object work is a great way to help them feel smart through the specificy of the mime
  • Until youve defined what it is, it could be anything to the audience
  • In addition to the object work, where youre looking informs the audience
  • Mime is 60% your object work and 40% focus (where your eyes are)
  • With focus remember the depth of your focus (how far away is it)
  • How fast your eyes move to scan or look at something tells you its size and how close it is to you
  • As things are created, they become reality
  • Where you walk and move also define whats there or not there (car, coffee table, etc)

Instructor: Alex Marino
Date Taken: May 2010

With Level 4, I continued my focus on experiential learning and just trying to incorporate what I heard as opposed to logically thinking about.  Our particular class was about the Evente, which lends itself to creating better improvisers for any form.

I also learned more from the 4 performances than I did from any of the classes (you can’t beat actual experience).  Here’s what I remember.

To find out more about the Magnet training program, go here.

Class Notes

  • Decide who you are.  What are your character’s friends like? Parents? What do they do for fun?  What’s their favorite color?  You don’t have to do scenes about these things, but if you decide them it will inform your decisions.
  • Don’t forget to endow yourself.
  • The way the opening is played and the first scene set the tone for the entire show.
  • Follow the fun.
  • The longer you talk about an event, the more the audience wants to see it and the bigger the letdown if you never get to it. 

Instructor: Peter McNierney
Date Taken: March 2010

As I continued further into the Magnet program, I decided to try to learn more experientially (rather than logically), so I took fewer notes and focused on how I was feeling in scenes—what worked / what didn’t.  Still there were some notes that were too good to not write down.

To find out more about the Magnet Training program, go here.

Class Notes

  • Watch the Breakfast Club—its all about statuses
  • Homework: try to recognize what your natural status is and then play with it and do other statuses
  • Your intro in a scene / group game, is your promise to the audience of who you are
  • Order of Importance of Improv Elements: 1) relationships, 2) details, 3) pattern
  • The less you understand about what someone initiates the more you should imitate what they are doiing
  • Take a breath after your initiation and remind yourself that improv is about the relationships not the premises from the opening
  • Make every move matter through your reactions

Instructor: Billy Merritt
Date Taken: January 2010

I took a 3-hour workshop with Billy Merritt and definitely enjoyed it, especially the Ninja, Robot, Pirate metaphor and exercises. Here are the notes from his workshop.

Workshop Notes

  • Improv is 2 things: pattern and rhythm. 
  • Mirroring also means stage picture. 
  • Turn improv technique into story. 
  • If you’re tentative as an improviser, your scene will be too. 
  • When you name someone, you own a piece of them—so name your scene partners. 
  • Surrender yourself to your personal rituals on stage so you don’t have to think about what you’re talking about. 
  • Action is what the scene is about.  Activity is what you’re in doing in the scene. 
  • Going through personal rituals on stage aren’t game, they just ground you in reality. 
  • Don’t wait for class to become a better improviser. 
  • Don’t let fear crash on your couch. 
  • A strong improviser is a pirate, ninja and robot. 
  • Pirate—Attack scenes like a pirate.  No fear, be ruthless. Bathe in the blood of game. 
  • Robot—Analyze scenes like a robot.  Every scene is like a program, find the program and then just follow the logic of it. 
  • Ninja—Edit / Add to scenes like a ninja.  The audience should never notice your moves.

Instructor: Louis Kornfeld
Date Taken: November 2009

After going through the curriculum at UCB, my biggest weakness as an improviser was reacting emotionally.  After great experiences with Shoot from the Hip (full of Magnet people) and the Dynamic Duos class, I decided to go through the Magnet program with an emphasis on improving as an emotional player.

I was able to skip Level 1 and started with Level 2.  Here are the notes.

To find out more about the Magnet training program, go here.

Class Notes

  • Start your scene by reacting to something that has already happened
  • Don’t present your idea, embody or be the idea
  • Take a suggestion and think about the emotions it inspires
  • Deal with your own honesty on stage
  • Your scene partner on stage can be your “suggestion”—take what you notice about each other and personalize it
  • Theres enormous value into trusting your instincts and reactions to what your scene partner is giving
  • Make an offer and then pay attention to their reaction, that’s your new suggestion
  • “How well am I performing” is one of the most worthless questions in improv.  If you are asking that, you aren’t paying attention
  • Scenes shouldn’t be hard. they should have energy, not effort
  • Law of adjacency – given one very specific detail, there is a another specific detail that is related to it.  Improv is communicating those adjancecies
  • You can “sell” anything to the audience if you commit
  • The one thing we don’t want to be on stage is neutral. don’t be the “too cool for school” attitude
  • Take full ownership of what you do on stage
  • Specific thoughts lead to specific action. if you make a decision in your mind as to what’s going on, it will inform your decisions
  • Big truths are made up of a bunch of tiny truths
  • Positive emotion is not a weak one
  • Don’t forget the different shades of an emotion. be specific—gloom is different than depression
  • An emotional reaction gives you another thing to explore. explore how you feel about what’s happening on stage
  • Strong reactions beget strong reactions. when you don’t have them it forces you to have to think instead of reacting
  • Dirty little secret of improv: it doesn’t really matter what your reaction is so long as its committed
  • Heightening = magnifying the behavior
  • Theres a lot more power in exploring what you’ve already created instead of just creating new ideas
  • Improv is not just about making shit up, its about using what you have

Instructors: Neil Casey and Dyna Moe
Date Taken: October 2009

Straight out of my first 501, I was selected to do the The Movie form, and found it is a blast to play and can help you become a better improviser regardless of what form you’re doing.  I feel like I was stuck in my head for most of this class (possibly due to my lack of deep movie genre understanding), but still learned a ton. 

Find out more about UCB’s training program here.

Note: This level of class is now known as Advanced Study Performance and can be any type of performance. Our class focused on The Movie form; although the notes are in regard to the form, they’re also good to keep in mind for other forms of improv.

Class #1

  • simplified version of the form: scene paint 3 scenes, then tell the title, then we act out the scenes (with the characters that were in it)
  • don’t puppet the people in the scene, just describe what the audience can see
  • same thing as all improv, there are no take backs
  • your title is your last chance to help solidify the story and the genre
  • “you can trip in improv, just don’t fall. if something comes up justify it and its not a mistake”
  • don’t feel like you have to come up with a great screenplay and surprise the audience with plot. the fun of the form comes from seeing how you explore a genre

Class #2

  • if your 3 scene paintings establish the hero, villain, and object/macguffin then you’ll make it eaiser to tell a story and know the genre
  • there are certain characteristics to identify hero (light, handsome, doing something nice) and villain (ugly, wears dark, doing something mean)

Class #3

  • be efficient. if its not genre, character or game specific, you don’t need it
  • your scene painted scenes should be far apart from each other. we want the characters to have to “travel” to meet each other
  • we follow game in this form. we don’t have to create a super plot, that will come from the genre.
  • PLOT DOES NOT MATTER!

Class #4

  • take the genre specifics and figure out how to turn it into game and heighten
  • opening focuses on setting up genre
  • middle is all about genre game
  • end is about the big finish
  • the first set of scenes are your backdrop for the rest of your movie. that means don’t follow plot
  • don’t try to combine  two genres, just do one well. it doesn’t have to be more clever than that.
  • you can give gifts to the other scenes by referencing them
  • its up to anyone to decide/say hero/object/villain. its up to everyone to support it.

Class #5

  • back line has to be active in the climax
  • end the movie saying “the end” and the booth will black out
  • the plot is moved by the cuts and locations you make. play the game in the actual scenes
  • the villain has to be villainous / evil. the hero has to have a want
  • make stories / plot as simple as possible
  • play your role!

Class #6

  • its everybody’s job to decide what movie we’re doing
  • if we don’t have a clear idea of what the movie is after the title, were behind the curve and need big decisions
  • when you realize what movie it is, its your job to make moves that let your fellow players what it is

Class #7

  • the genre is like the “real world” in normal improv, ie it is the baseline
  • you don’t want everything to be silly, make an honest take on the genre and find the one specific thing you are going to heighten and play
  • even when things get intense or energetic, you have to all be on the same page
  • the biggest key is to just dive in and have fun

Class #8

  • hollywood is racist. in many genres the race of the character can matter
  • the climax should come at about 20 minutes in
  • skip the extraneous details in the scene painting, keep only the essentials, but with that, be specific
  • its ok to lose characters as you go. just keep the important ones (hero and villain)
  • like always, play the laugh to find your game

Show #1

  • make sure you use the suggestion somehow so its clear that you are using it
  • when you’re playing the hero, its often the straight character
  • give the hero scenes where he can be the hero
  • the villain has to be strong and pursue his evilness
  • allow yourself to look stupid within the confines of the genre
  • inhabit your character

Show #2

  • even if you’re having fun, don’t forget to play the form
  • avoid competing with each other on stage in terms of moves
  • the camera angles buy you time! they give you time and improve your show
  • you gotta know the why’s 

Show #3

  • if you set up game moves, don’t forget to play them throughout because its low hanging fruit
  • be precise with your moves, p’s and q’s

Show #4

  • even with an interesting character, don’t forget the games of the other people
  • heighten and explore your games
  • drew: be more aggressive, be willing to give bigger reactions
  • help each other with your games by putting people in interesting scenes or combinations of characters
  • name each other
  • if you find a game you don’t want to play, you have to make sure you find a new one to replace it