The following was posted to Billy Merritt’s Improv Dance Party Tumblr. It’s reprinted here (with illustrations by David Kantrowitz added) with permission.
I’ve been teaching some form of improvisation for 18 years now, and I will keep on teaching as long as I can. I love it, I will not apologize. There was a time that I was worried about the phrase “Those that can’t do, teach” — was that me? Am I condemned to teaching while watching others succeed around me?
Yes and No.
Others will succeed whether I teach or not. I seem to be getting a steady stream of work outside of improv (VO’s, TV, and Model Railroading). I could do better, work harder, write more, but I don’t suck. What I do know is that if I don’t teach, something in me feels off. I feel if I teach it, I will do it in real life. It keeps me grounded, it keeps me honest.
I teach improv, improvisationally.
Each class is different, each student is different, you have to adjust your notes to the individual. You can’t teach in absolutes. That doesn’t mean I change the curriculum with each class, but I do change the approach. There isn’t one rule that rules them all. As a teacher you have to evaluate your class and adjust accordingly. In order to do that you have to put your students into different categories, or Types. You must realize as the class goes along, these Types can change, so your notes have to change with them.
Here’s an example of just a few Student Types:
The Church Mouse: Shy, hangs on the back wall, took the class to become more confident. They’re hard to get going but when they do, they tend to play real scenes. As they progress you usually tend to see them play the straight person in scenes. It is a joy to watch them come out of their shell.
The Gung-Ho: They are usually the loudest during warmups, the first up, the ones you have to tell to calm down. They have a tendency to run past things, not listen as well. But they care, and want to get better. When they do get better, they can provide the spark that every team needs.
The Actor: Ends up in class because they have been told they need improv on their special skills section for their resume. They tend to have the best stage presence, but as soon as they get left to their own devices they can panic. Once they let themselves go though they make everyone around them look better. [See: Gravid Water]
The Questionater: These people will ask more questions then they need to, in scenes and in the class. It means they want to be absolutely clear before they make a move because they don’t want to make a mistake. Once they learn to internalize the questions on stage, and know that it’s safe to fail, they tend to take off.
The Rebel: Wants to challenge your notes, the school’s philosophy, and basically are contrarian in nature. Probably has a blog about improv where they make strong statements about what Improv should be. (This was me when I started.) There is one of these types every year, causing teachers to huddle in the lounge and ask what that person’s deal is. As they get more experienced and veer away from absolutes in their philosophy, they tend to be great players… or pricks… or both.
The Late: They come to every class about 5 min late, they text during class. I have no use for these people, they will die alone.
There are many different types, and there are many students that don’t fall into any types. As an experienced teacher, when you start to see patterns, you play the game.
By the way, all these types apply to different teachers as well. We were all students at one time.
Billy Merritt has been a performer and teacher at the UCB since its inception. Since moving to LA, he has made appearances on Happy Endings, Parks and Rec, Weeds, and Up All Night.