Merlin Works Newsletter Article: Seven Stages of Leadership for Improvisers

 Information and goals are constantly changing, but you need to project a sense of confidence, safety and control while challenging your team members to do their best.

It’s hard to learn how to be a great leader or a great improv director.  Like learning leadership skills, you kind of have to learn how to direct improv by doing it. And when I say learn by doing, I mean by messing up on lots of great and aspiring players who often happen to be your friends.

This is part of the inspiration for forming new student troupes with new coaches every month at Merlin Works Mixers (next Mixer, this Sunday May 13th at 2pm.) It gives students and new players an opportunity to rehearse and perform, but it also gives experienced players a chance to hone their skills in directing and coaching.

There are many markers on their way to success as leaders. In my experience, there are seven stages to knowing how to side coach or narrate improv scenes.

  1. You have very little idea of what’s happening and what might be about to happen onstage.You are a new improviser, so take your time getting good at performing scenes before you start directing them. You aren’t ready to lead just yet.
  2. You know that something is wrong before the players on stage do. This comes from years of improv experience. Many of the same scenes, scenarios, and mistakes come up again and again. When you can see a mistake or weak choice quickly, before it derails the scene, you have an opportunity to correct for it before the scene becomes irreparable.
  3. You know exactly what is wrong. You can diagnose the issue and are aware of when things got off track. Maybe you identify a block, a missed offer, a stagnating scene, or a lack of emotion or physical action. Being familiar with the Naughty Things To Do in Improv can help with quick diagnosis.
  4. You have an idea of how to fix it. The scene is static? How about an emotional change. The scene’s gotten off track? Maybe we can bring back the opening offer. Gossiping about a character not onstage? Someone should enter to play that character.
  5. You know how to communicate the fix. Maybe you can give a line of dialogue to say. Maybe you can explain the problem and suggest a course of action.
  6. You know how to communicate the fix well.Finding the most succinct and unobtrusive way to side coach a scene can be very challenging. Finding the exact right moment to chime in can be tricky. You don’t want to disrupt the flow of the scene or the connection between the players. Your direction should be like a puff of air, pushing the sailboat of the scene along.
  7. You know how to inspire players, and not just fix their mistakes. Some of it is in giving the proper set up to the improvisers onstage to make sure it plays to their skills and inspires them. When players feel inspired and confident, many weaker choices will be avoided altogether. Some of it is intervening so early and subtly that the player doesn’t even know what’s happening. Some of it is getting out of the players way when they are doing well and are full of ideas.

My advice for new directors is to start by over-directing. Just like in improv, you can’t wait until you are totally ready before you jump in because the moment will have passed and it will have been too late. Instead you have to jump in early and often. Then figure out what to do in the moment.  Step on some toes and make some mistakes. A good technique if you are still in stage 1 or 2 is to yell, “Freeze!” as soon as you know something is wrong. This can buy you a few seconds and make it easier to insert your direction. Then have the players continue.

I know a lot of people don’t like being side coached, but I would say that they might not have had an excellent director coaching them. Because when you have a great director or a great leader, you can feel freer and more talented than ever. Great leaders make the players look good, and don’t try to take credit for themselves.

Shana Merlin
Founder, Merlin Works

About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.
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  3. Colleen L said:

    Thank you! This article is so helpful. I’ve been playing improv for about ten years and recently started coaching/teaching improv and I am feeling rather overwelmed. Good to know the roadmarks and see that I’m ready, just need to trust myself and my group.

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