Giving and receiving feedback is one of the trickiest parts of improv, or any field for that matter. There is already so much fear involved in a creative situation, that a negative comment, taken the wrong way, could send someone down a spiral and actually take them back a few steps in their work, not to mention in your interpersonal relationship. But without feedback, people’s improvement can be slow, stagnant, or non-existent.
When I’m teaching I feel like I have a pretty good handle on how to create a safe environment and give feedback in a productive way:
1) Think Positive. Be happy and delighted by the things your students do. My filler words instead of “Yes” or “Uh-huh” are “Good” and “Great,” giving those positive strokes whenever possible. Start with the positive when giving feedback for a scene.
2) Concrete Coaching in the moment. Redirect the performance while it’s happening, so that students don’t experience much failure. Afterwards, you can explain why you coached that in the moment, so the student can still learn from their mistakes.
3) Give a chance for success. Let them try it again with coaching. Rewind, take something back, and go from there. Then students will associate your feedback with success.
4) Keep it brief and easy. Don’t let bad stuff drag out. Better to get several tries in a short scene than one long bad one with notes afterward.
5) If the note is somewhat personal (you have a hard time making eye contact, you need to be able to give up control of the scene) make the problem behavior normal, or even better, something you struggle with yourself. Give anecdotes or evidence that what they are doing or experiencing is common.
6) You are solely responsible for negative feedback. Turn to the class or group for positive instructions for another student, but negative feedback should only be given by you. This keeps the negative content under control. Many students want to help direct and give criticism, but this often muddles the situation.
7) Choose your battles. You can’t give someone all their notes at once, they will crumble. Focus on having them accept ideas. Focus on stage presence. But don’t talk about their space work, the accent, their volume, and their story choices all at once. After getting feedback, a student should feel they are able to take action on what you have given them.
8) Give negative feedback in an actionable form. Instead of “I couldn’t hear you” say “Use more volume. Talk to the back of the house.” Instead of “It felt like nothing was happening in your story” say “Look for opportunities to be changed by the other player and ways to show that physically. Maybe you could have stood up, or thrown your drink, or crumpled into a ball.”
9) Check in. Pay attention to the body language you are receiving when you are giving feedback. Are students nodding? Is there face scrunching up? If you feel like it’s not being received well, check in with them. “Does that make sense?” “What was going on in your mind when you made that choice?” “Does that help you?”
10) Coach students on how to take feedback. Sometimes you’ll come across a student who will have a real hard time taking criticism. Perhaps they argue, defend themselves, get angry, or shut down. I think it’s appropriate to gently coach them on how to take notes, if not right then, then privately after class. Tell them not to argue. Try to listen, if you feel the note doesn’t work for you, let it go. If you feel there’s something there you can use, take it. Or if it’s too hard to listen in the moment, write down your notes and revisit them later. You can decide what works and also notice what notes you are getting over and over. Try to stay happy after receiving notes (the teacher can help with this by making jokes). Tension is introduced into the room when notes go bad, and then the student is much less likely to get valuable feedback in the future. If they can’t stay happy, they should at least try to thank the person giving them feedback.
Now as far as peer feedback goes. . . That’s a whole ‘nother story.