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In praise of informal mentors in improv

I’ve only done improv at one place, DSI Comedy Theater (462 West Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, NC – come visit!). So please know that, while I think the things I’m about to talk about probably apply in other improv communities, I’ve only experienced this one directly.

Improv at DSI, and as I understand it, lots of other places, does a great job of providing you with formal mentors. You begin by taking classes, where you have teachers who not only tell you things, but sidecoach you while you’re in the thick of it. They’ll go out with you after class and talk more about what you did in class. If you’re cast on a house team, you get a coach; at DSI, if you’re a company member and you’re on an indie team, you can get a coach. So we’ve got teachers and coaches, formal mentors whose job it is to help you work through stuff and improve.

But I think it’s really beneficial to have informal mentors, too. I think there are two types of informal mentors: the kind you talk to, and the kind you watch.

A talky-talk mentor is really great when you’re having improv thoughts, and the non-improv people in your life can’t relate, and a lot of the improv people who came in at the same time as you are maybe having similar problems. A lot of times improv brings up feelings, and a lot of times your more formal mentors or your comedy friends might not be equipped to deal with how many feelings you have, so it’s really nice if you can find a talky-talk mentor to deal with THAT. When you’re excited about a new thing you can share it with them; when you are struggling you can talk to them and find out that, hey, everybody has kind of the same patterns in their feelings about improv and goes through them around the same times in their improv careers. Bianca Casusöl has generously been exactly this person for me, talking me through some really slumpy times. Go find your Bianca. It might actually be Bianca.

A watchy-watch mentor might not even know they’re mentoring you, which is totally okay. This is someone who every time you watch them you feel like you’re learning something new. Sometimes, um, you have a video of a show that you’ve watched over and over and then after 30 viewings you notice a new bit of object work they did. (No? Just me? Okay.) Sometimes you’re even on stage with them and you learn a new thing. Sometimes, you think you’re doing a thing, and then you look across the stage and see that no, you’re not really doing that thing, but they are, and damn is it impressive and don’t you wish you were doing it better and oh hey wait – maybe you should from now on make it a point to do that more the way they’re doing it, since you’re so blown away. And if you know me at all, then you know what I’m about to say: an excellent watchy-watch informal mentor is Kit FitzSimons (to whom I am also grateful for his work as a formal mentor as coach/director for the Improvised Whedon Company, and a bit of talky-talk mentoring about improv thoughts, too).

Last week I was performing in the Family Improv show at DSI with Kit. We were both on the sidelines; neither of us was in the scene that was going on. Historically speaking, I’ve always prided myself on being activated whenever I’m on stage. As a perpetual chorus girl, I’ve had plenty of stage time when I wasn’t the focus, and I like to imagine I do a pretty good job of remaining present. I try to do the same thing with improv when I’m standing on the side, but I have a habit of putting my hands behind my back against the wall and resting my head back and getting super into watching the scene, which means if a walk-on is called for and I’m the right person to do it I kind of have to peel myself off the wall first. I had to do that very thing in an IWC show in September, in fact. 

But at the Family Improv show, I noticed (and why I hadn’t noticed this so pointedly in the shows I’ve seen Kit in or been in with him before I don’t know because I guarantee you he does it every time), he was not just paying close attention to what was going on in the scene, he was basically AT attention: in position – head and shoulders back a little, arms slightly pulled away from his sides, light on his feet – and ready to jump in at any time if needed, but not pulling focus. And I thought, “I’ve got to be more like that; it’ll make it easier to jump in, it’ll lend more energy to the proceedings on stage, it’ll be better for me and my teammates and the audience.” It’s going to look different on me than it does on Kit, but it’s an energy and focus that I can shift to instead of my heretofore not-unpresent wall-sticking (better than sitting down or zoning out, but could be even better).

The great thing about watchy-watch mentors is you can find them anywhere people are doing improv, and you can have an unlimited number of them, and it costs them literally nothing to mentor you, as they were going to perform anyway.

All this to say, as soon as you feel comfortable enough in an improv community to do so, I would strongly recommend finding yourself some informal mentors to supplement your awesome teachers and coaches.