Thursday, December 19, 2013

David Shepherd's Three Things I Learned Coaching

This is an excerpt from a coach’s handbook David Shepherd put together in 1982, when he was producing the Improv Olympics with Charna Haplern in Chicago.   His suggestions are still relevant to today’s improv scene.

Players need your encouragement to assume a full and active role in team play.  How can you help?  As players arrive to practice, ask them what situation and what character they want to play.  Each player should know not only what she/he wants, but also what teammates expect.  Base the session on those needs.  FOR INSTANCE:  One night a player came in with the humiliation of being sold a fake 19” color TV set for $98.  We used this experience as a base for a Work Put event (to show the street corner con), Silent Wrestling event (the 2 minutes after she tells her husband) a Song event, and Moral Lift  event (team explains the meaning of what it’s done in the preceding events).  After an hour of play the player felt better because she now understood why she allowed herself to be cheated.

The brains of those who are not playing often go to sleep -- because of anxiety or excitement.  CURE:  Ask every player off-stage to choose both a sound effect and a “cross over” role to support the main section.  For instance, suppose the audience wants to send two lovers in a Space Jump event into “high grass under a harvest moon.”  Then each of the other ten players will be ready with the sound of a cricket, while thinking “what role can I play to enrich this improv?  Does it need me to be a big sister, a mother, the man’s last lover, a dog, a cat, the woman’s neighbor, etc.?”  Players doing “cross overs” do not stay on stage to monopolize the scene.  They add an appropriate note and leave.

God Squad at the Chicago Improv Olympics

Practical Women at the Chicago Improv Olympics

Improvisations succeed on their feet, die sitting down.  How to keep players moving?  Never stop creating and relating to imaginary objects so the environment becomes real.  Find a mutual focus (like a fly in the soup), and then “go to the walls,” expand the “where,” to find the things in the environment that can enrich the improvisation.  SIDE COACH: i.e. to make suggestions during the improvisations. Example: “Go in…find a focus…do it together…find more details…good…now go to the walls...find something in the outer environment, both of you…good…now go in again…”  Make sure your players are using all five senses to explore.

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games.  Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development. 


  1. Michael .... One 'weakness' that David, Dell, Bernie and a few others of that generation shared was their insistence that intellect was the supreme god of Improv ... They all had issues with emotion ... Bernie would often strip emotional triggers from written scenes usually weakening the comedic impact. I would offer that action is necessary to a successful scene ... however emotional action is the key. I suggest that if you look at your memories of successful scenes you will be able to pick out some great scenes that had little or no physical action (sitting). Sitting does not kill scenes. Lack of emotion kills scenes .... emotion in the presentation and/or the words and/or in the audience ... we build emotional tension that is released through laughter ... No emotion ... No comedy ....

  2. I can’t speak for Del or Bernie, but you’re wrong about David. Known him for over 40 years and he’s never insisted that intellect was the supreme god of comedy. Starting with Compass, David’s approach towards improv has always been intuitive, not intellectual. He wants improvs to “be real” which means emotional sincerity. Every format David has created, centers around emotions. With the Improv Olympics, it was “Emotional Hurdles.” His current format Life-Play, “Emotional Pitch.” Even his object work centers around emotions. Example; drink a cup of sour coffee which churns in your stomach. How does that make you feel in a scene? If there was a “weakness” with David's approach, it was that he felt spontaneity trumped content – which is an argument he constantly had with Bernie and Del. I suggest you read the other blogs I have up about David's work, such as "Improv's Three Sources" and "David Shepherd's State of Improvisation."