Tag Archives: teaching

Picture Book Improv: Blue Hat, Green Hat

This year, inspired by Bill Arnett’s post about reading Richard Scarry books as Harolds, I started kicking off improv class with a picture book. My middle school students were, in theory, too old for picture books. (I’m not sure anyone’s too old for picture books, actually.) But starting class off with a picture book helped them all focused on the same thing and gave me useful shorthand to use in my side coaching.

The Book: Sandra Boynton’s Blue Hat, Green Hat

Improv relevance: Pattern-based games, heightening, pacing, rule of three (loosely), reincorporation

Follow up exercises: Anything pattern-based. There are eight thousand pattern games, and everyone’s version is wrong except yours, probably. That’s fine. Pick your favorite pattern warm-up, then try breaking the pattern on purpose. Incorporate building and breaking the pattern into openings, scenes, and games.

Shorthand I took: “Is this a hat or an oops?” (Did you step on stage to show us more examples of the same thing, or did you step on to change something?) “Look for the oops!” (Players on stage, heighten. Players off stage, get ready to edit.)


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Each page has four animals, each wearing the same kind of clothing in different colors. The turkey is always last, and the turkey is always wearing the clothing wrong.

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After we’ve seen this pattern three times, it speeds up. We see one animal wearing something, then the turkey’s “oops” right away.

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We the clothing pattern six times before — finally! — the turkey gets it right. He’s wearing everything we’ve seen him mis-wear throughout the book, and he’s wearing it all at once. But then we see that he’s worn this outfit to a pool, when everyone else is in a swimsuit. Oops.

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By the second page, the book has promised us that the turkey will always mess up. Establishing a pattern lets us vary, heighten, and eventually break the pattern.

I’m not sure that improv games — I mean particularly the organic, non-scenic pieces of a Harold — need to be any more complicated than that. Establish the pattern, speed up or heighten the pattern, break the pattern. As we get more adventurous, the patterns get more sophisticated and the variations get wilder, but it’s the same core idea.


As I said above, I followed this book up with pattern-based warm ups. I also led a Conducted Story inspired by the principles the students pulled from the book:

  • Establish a pattern, then break it.
  • Show something about three times, or show three versions of a thing.
  • Stories feel over when something from earlier comes back at the end.

This gave us some of the best stories I’d seen so far from any group, kids or adults. Giving the students a framework made their stories more creative, not less. The players loved this exercise so much so much that they used a version of it, minus the conductor and plus some physicality, as their Harold opening.

3 Song Hot Spot

I know Hot Spot is a performance piece in Truth in Comedy, but I use it as an energy- and team-building warm-up, an exercise taking turns in the spotlight. Nobody is in the spotlight for long, and everyone has to get into the spotlight at some point.

In the improv for teenagers class I taught this year, we battled perfectionism and a tendency to separate the kids who were fluent in pop culture from the kids who weren’t. Hot Spot highlighted these pitfalls. Players didn’t want to jump into the middle unless they had the right song to sing. A song that nobody had sung yet, or a song they were sure they remembered all the words to, or a song that would help them fit in.

While everyone spun their wheels on the side, searching their mental playlists for perfect songs, some poor soul had been stuck in the middle for what felt like forever, and he only knew half the chorus to his song.

So I gave them three options: “Bah, Bah, Black Sheep,” “ABC’s,” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

Yeah, those all have the same melody. The point is that everyone knows them, and there’s no way to look cool singing them. The point isn’t to do the perfect thing. It’s to do something.

Suddenly, they were tagging each other out. They were singing at the tops of their voices, with commitment, expression, and silliness. They were singing back-up vocals for each other.

When I launched them straight from 3 Song Hot Spot into a Harold, they worried less about saying the perfect thing in their opening. They listened better and piled onto the game with more energy. They were more playful and less prone to freezing up from trying to be original. They showed more of themselves, and they played the way I want to play.

Free Class by the numbers

From December 2014 until a couple of months ago, I taught a weekly free introductory improv class at Westside. I thought of it as recess for grown ups, and I loved it. It was a low-risk way for people who had never been on a stage before to try it out, and it was a way for people who have improvised for years to play with new people and remind themselves why they started doing improv in the first place.

I left for a few weeks to recover from childbirth, and by the time I came back, most of the improvisers who had been coming regularly had joined teams, enrolled in more advanced workshops, or had otherwise moved on. The weekly Free Class is no more.

(If this makes you sad, you should know that Westside’s Jam is still free, and their improv classes are about half the price of other suburban training centers. Here’s some info!)

Over the next few days/weeks/whenever I have a break, I’m going to write out more of what we did during a normal week of Free Class. For now, here are some Free Class stats:

  • 33total number of classes I taught
  • 48number of classes there were total from December 2, 2014 through October 27, 2015.
  • 448number of people who took the class, if you don’t take into account that many players came more than once
  • 113number of people who actually came through the class
  • 11.2average number of players each week
  • 3.14average number of new players each week (and also π). I only had one week with no new faces.
  • 22number of players in the largest class
  • 1number of players in the smallest class. Yep, I taught a one-on-one improv class to someone who had never performed before, and she rocked it.
  • 10approximate age of the youngest player I taught.
  • 60-somethingapproximate age of the oldest player I taught, though my guess could be far off in either direction
  • 2number of weeks between the last full class I taught and the day my kid was born

Why your kids (and you!) should learn improv

I wrote a letter to parents of kids who would enjoy taking my improv class later this winter. Most families just know me as a Latin teacher, and they may or may not know what improv is or how it could benefit their kids.

Here’s what I wrote to them.

Improvisation — creating unscripted theater on the spot — helps students develop their performance and leadership skills. It’s also a laboratory for learning to love their neighbor in the moment, and it’s an enormous amount of fun!

Your student might want to take improv if:
  • They love creative writing once they’ve thought of something to write about, but they wish coming up with new ideas didn’t feel so hard.
  • Their biggest complaint about the annual school play is that their character is in only a portion of it, and they want to be in the whole thing. They would live onstage if they could.
  • They would have auditioned for a bigger part in the play if it weren’t for all that memorizing.
  • They want a chance to perform at an actual improv theater at the end of the semester.
As a parent, you might want your kids to take improv if:
  • You want them to listen well rather than just waiting for their turn to talk.
  • You want them to grow in confidence and learn to take the lead sometimes.
  • You want them to share focus with others rather than always needing the spotlight on themselves.
  • You want them to understand that they can be a leader without being the sole person in charge.
  • You want them to cultivate awareness and generosity in their daily lives and have a lot of fun doing it.

If you or someone you know home schools a kid age 12-18 who might like this class, there is more information here.
If you’re thinking, “Never mind about home school kids ages 12-18 — I am an adult and I want to get good at that stuff, too!” then check out the free class I teach at Westside Improv.

“So you wanna teach improv in the business world, huh?”

Before The Improv Retreat, campers had the opportunity to register for three workshops. The first one I took was “Improv in the Business World,” taught by Deanna Moffitt.

Deanna makes part of her living teaching corporate improv with Business Improvisations. The participants are there not to become performers but to become better leaders and employees. She has taught improv skills to MBA students, salespeople, managers, all kinds.  (Here is an amazing list of articles on the subject from Business Improvisations. Second City also teaches corporate improv;  here is a WBEZ piece about what one of these classes (taught by Andy Eninger of Second City) is like for a group of librarians.)

None of the exercises we learned were new to me, but the spin Deanna put on them made it obvious how relevant they were for life off stage.

Here are some of my notes. Any inaccuracies are because I can’t read my handwriting, not because Deanna wasn’t full of wisdom.

  • Make the corporate workshop as safe a place as possible. Get a verbal agreement from all participants that they are releasing judgment of themselves, others, and the exercises.
  • In a corporate context, saying “yes” doesn’t mean, “I agree with you.” It means, “I hear you.”  (This! This is so helpful. I was once on a committee of improvisers, and the guy in charge would force his half-baked ideas to happen by telling anyone who questioned him that we “really needed to have a spirit of yes, and, guys …” None of us knew how to argue with that, which meant awesome group mind turned into horrible groupthink.)
  • Choose exercises that don’t keep the spotlight on one person. If we’re all doing this together, nobody looks silly.
  • Learn to ask good questions, and get comfortable with silence. The participants will eventually break the silence with answers that fit their workplace better than anything you could suggest.
  • Improvisers are so indoctrinated with “yes, and” that we forget how revolutionary it was when we first learned it. It changes lives.

My favorite moment was after we played Red Ball — y’all know that I like Red Ball, right? — and Deanna asked us for how this might apply to our work lives. Right away, people saw it as an exercise in delegating, multitasking, letting go of anxiety, and lots of other things I hadn’t thought about in connection with Red Ball. I had thought of this game as having straightforward applications for church ministry, but I hadn’t thought about how it could work in any office.

Improv principles apply everywhere in some form, and you can trust that most people will see how improv fits into their own lives and workplaces.

I signed up for this class because I’m teaching “Improv Skills for Life” at The Greenhouse this fall, and I wanted some perspective on how to approach planning curriculum for a class that does not have performance as its goal. I came away with practical ways to break my goals for the class into smaller steps, and I can’t wait to start teaching it.

If you took this workshop, too, did you take different notes? What did you take away from the class?