Tips & Tricks of The Trade – Advice and Words of Wisdom from Seasoned Improvisers

I recently posted a question on Facebook asking Improvisers and non Improvisers “What is your go to method for asking for a suggestion for a show?” so that I could get some ideas as we had been practicing in Singing 101. There were a ridiculous amount of responses (Thanks, everyone!) so that’s why it prompted me to look into more tips and tricks of the trade from seasoned Improvisers.

Having been to tons of shows around Austin and regularly seeing some of my favorite troupes, I am always in awe of these troupes abilities to work so well together that they blow me away each and ever single time. I’ve always wondered if there is a go-to strategy they have when playing in a show, whether when given a suggestion at the beginning of the show or endowing one another with a character trait, there has to be some secret weapons that these improvisers use that’s not taught in class, right?

I posted the question “Are there any tips or tricks you’ve learned as an improviser that aren’t taught in class?” on the Merlin Works Students & Alumni page on Facebook and the tips and tricks varied from simple reminders from Merlin Works Alum Teacher, Lauren Buck, stating to “Breathe. If you’re not breathing, you’re in your head.” to a learned lesson from Puppet Improv Project’s, Sara Farr, “I took a lot of classes, but a visiting Joe Bill once told me that we tend to get physically stuck at a 45 degree angle between our mime work and talking to our scene partner — never committing to one or the other. He said commit to one with your body — face your invisible sink put your whole body into miming washing the dishes, them turn and talk to your partner. It’s much more convincing.”

As for my curiosity regarding more specific instances in shows, like where might one pull inspiration for characters from, Shana Merlin stated that she loves to play someone she knows, especially someone she doesn’t understand. Which, I get! That seems like a great opportunity to develop someone real and unique while getting the satisfaction of finally figuring that person out…according to you and you only. It’s kind of like a game you’re playing with yourself. Wait a sec, did someone say game? That’s another tip for a great show! Use games! The Known Wizards, composed of the Merlin Works Staff, base their format on using improv games in their show, creating high energy, fast paced, improv fun while displaying what Merlin Works classes are all about and it gets the audience so involved and invested in the show!

After gathering all this great feedback from several improvisers, I noticed a common theme: Keep it simple. It doesn’t have to be complex. Get out of your head and into the moment and you will be great. Merlin Works teacher Michael Ferstenfeld said it best: “Always be on a park bench.” (Maybe this guy should try out some improvised David Mamet!?) When all is said and done, it’s all about going back to the basics and keeping improv EPIC.

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About Ashlee Medlin

Ashlee is a graduate of Merlin Works, a Teaching Assistant and sometimes blogging intern.
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  1. I like that you mentioned just getting out of your head and into the moment of it. My brother is looking to take some professional improv classes but is also looking for tips. I’ll be sure to talk to him about getting out of his head and into the moment of it.

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