How to infiltrate an improv community

In January 2009, my friend from college asked me if I would participate in an improvised movie in downtown Phoenix. My heart simultaneously flew into my throat and sank into my toes. I had done improv in college while studying acting and theatre. He had been in the troupe with me, and continued on after I was not cast… one of the most gut wrenching, soul breaking moments of my early acting career. Wah. Poor little me. But I hadn’t improvised since, and as much as it scared me, I missed it and wanted to get back to it. I said yes.
That started a whole journey into joining a community that has become like a family. I can’t (or don’t want to) remember what my life was like without the people and activities that make up this community. I’ve had people ask me about how they might get into improv as a performer, and I thought I would share my tips from this journey.
1. Go see shows
There are numerous types of improv that exist in the world, and different communities have different approaches and points of view. In Phoenix and the surrounding cities there are lots of different theaters that focus on improv: Jesterz in Scottsdale focuses on short form, game based improv, National Comedy Theatre in Mesa does as well, with a little longform mixed in. The Torch Theatre, which is the community I’m involved in, focuses solely on longform improv, like the Harold and other longform formats. I prefer that form of improv personally, but I understand everyone is different, so the first step is learning what kind of improv is happening where.
2. Participate in a jam
Jams are when anyone can step up and take part in a show. It’s like an open mike night for improv. I know Torch Theatre has a jam once a month at Trunk Space, and they are super fun. You put your name in a bucket, teams are pulled together from that, and you do a 15 minute show with your troupe for the night. I’ve done short form jams where you just step up on stage, the director runs the game, and you step in as needed. I think this is a great way to gauge where you are at as a performer in relation to this specific community. Getting to know other improvisors is key in building a troupe to perform, and jams are great for that.
3. Take a class
A lot of the theaters I’ve mentioned have classes to teach the improv that they perform. I have graduated from the Torch program, and I learned an enormous amount on top of my classical acting training. Not all improv communities have cattle calls to audition, unlike a typical acting community. Troupes are formed through people that come together with like-minded sensibilities and goals, or put together by the theatre that they perform for. Getting to know who you want to play with and what the theatre represents is easy when you are learning from them.
Everyone in improv that I admire takes classes as a way to keep themselves fresh and on the creative edge. We can all take a moment to keep learning, and in class, you have yet another opportunity to meet people that are interested in performing.
4. Form a troupe
Don’t wait until the God of improv comes down from the heavens and asks you to join him on the Cloud Stage. If you want to perform, you can find other people that are hungry to perform and make your way to the stage on your own. And when I say “stage,” that could mean any space that is willing to let you perform. There are coffee shops, bars, book stores, schools, and all kinds of other creative options where people could gather to watch a show. The great thing about improv is it can happen anywhere. Its great when you have a theatre, but it can be a fortifying experience to challenge yourself to improvise in other environments.
In addition to that, Torch has a weekly Cagematch, where troupes can go head to head to win the audience over for a chance to perform the next week. As long as you are performing longform improv, anyone can sign up for a slot in Cagematch. They also have shows like Cerberus Cup which are open to any troupe that fits the criteria.
With all that said, I am a trained actor, with a decent amount of semi-professional experience. While this did not make me an expert at improv, it did give me a lot of tools that helped me learn it. Everyone comes to improv for different reasons and with different skills. I prefer longform, some folks prefer short form. And like any art form, improv is an entrepreneurial environment. You need to understand your skill set, how it fits in with the market, and make your own opportunities. If you are open and talented and interested, the communities should welcome you.
This has been a life-changing journey for me, and I hope that more people step in to see where it leads them.

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