Which Improv School is Right for Me?

by Ben Whitehouse.

Hi Improvoker folks-I was just wondering if you could enlighten me on something. With so many improv schools available, it’s hard to decide which one is the best, or if there even is a best. There’s PIT, UCB, Magnet Theater, National Improv Theater, etc., etc. I’ve already taken a level 1 class at UCB. Do you recommend that I stick with them and go up the ranks or is there one school that is better than the other?

Sometimes I get intimidated by all the glitz and glamour attached to UCB and it makes me want to go somewhere that is not as high profile. Of course, then I become concerned that I won’t be getting as good an education from a less high-profile school or that agents tend to frequent one school more than the other yada yada yada. Any words of encouragement for a new improv-er?

I really appreciate it!

-TC

Well TC, as you can imagine this is some pretty subjective and delicate territory. What works for some people doesn’t work for others and people can get very defensive about their chosen school. You will undoubtedly meet people who will slag a school because “they suck,” but at the end of the day, every person’s sense of what is funny is different. I can only talk from personal experience and my involvement in the New York improv community, but I’ll try to give you as objective an opinion as possible

I’m not sure there is one best or worst in terms of improv schools, but rather what do you want to accomplish with your improv and which school is going provide you with the tools to attain those goals? All improv schools have a philosophy behind them that in some way is reflected in their training centers. Whenever I look to take classes, I always see my future instructor’s show beforehand to see if they are someone I identify with. Do I want this person teaching me? What will I learn from them? Do they jive with my improv beliefs? (I neglected do this one time and it remains one of the worst mistakes of my improv career)

You are a reader before you are a writer.

-J.D. Salinger

What I mean by “improv beliefs” is at a certain point you will develop your own philosophy behind your performance. You will decide, from watching others perform, what you think is funny, how you want to perform, and who your heroes are. For instance, I know when I started performing I wanted to perform dynamic scenes that didn’t necessarily stick to everyday reality — whimsical scenes where reality was heightened. When I started looking for instructors, I looked for performers who matched my philosophy and subsequently took my level 101 with Shannon O’Neill who is wonderful at exactly that. You might also want to go out and see some independent improv around town. These are shows where groups are not affiliated with any particular theater’s house teams. See which groups you like and ask the performers, after the show, where they trained — I’ve been asked loads of times where I trained by audience members.

Each school also has a particular philosophy behind it’s instruction. I’ve met countless people who are turned off by UCB’s training center, although I have been there for 2 years and have found it a very supportive environment. This is a harder concept to judge from the outside without taking multiple classes at a school. I know I have met individual instructors that I haven’t connected with or disagreed with — but from class to class, does the school make you feel encouraged or discouraged? Trust your instincts. If you don’t feel at home at one school, try another.

Lastly, define what it is you want to get out of improv. Do you want to be an actor? a writer? a director? where do you see yourself in 5 years? If you’re only goal is to be on a house team, you might want to choose schools with a smaller student population. If you’re interested in television, UCB has a reputation for being the place to find new talent. If you want to learn from direct descendants of Del Close, Armando Diaz of Magnet is a wonderful teacher and has a wonderful teaching style. Whatever your wants, try to remember why you’re doing this. Students often get lured into setting their sites of joining a house team, if this is what you want to do, wonderful — but remember why you got into improv. It probably wasn’t to be on a house team, it was probably to rule the world.

A Grain of Salt

I’ve been taking classes at UCB for about 2 years, and have also taken a sketch class at Magnet. I started taking classes at UCB because an ex-improv teammate of mine Bob Acevedo was taking classes there (Bob now teaches an awesome Slow Improv class at Magnet, I highly recommend it). I’ve never doubted my decision to take classes at UCB and continue to count myself as lucky to be part of such an incredible community. Regardless of where you study, I have found the New York improv community to be a warm and friendly place to perform. I believe firmly that you have to create the community in which you want to be a part of. Don’t get too bogged down with theater-vs-theater comparisons and instead cross-pollinate whenever possible.

Hope that helped, see you around town.

6 Responses to Which Improv School is Right for Me?

  1. Ryan says:

    Excellent article – I’ve often wondered this myself and didn’t really know how or who to ask. Now the work has been done for me. Sweet.

  2. Josh says:

    You know, part of it is what kind of theater you want to become involved with as a performer too. I’ve trained at all the training centers in NYC, and I don’t think you’re going to go wrong with any of them. I do think, however, there is a difference in how the experience of the performers on house teams at different theaters.

  3. Cris says:

    I’m interested in knowing if UCB will help to establish my ability to act in T.V. Commercials. If not, can anyone reccommend the right cold reading or commercial technique classes to take in NYC. TVi teachers haven’t been showing up. They are apparently too busy because of their dayjobs- thanks

  4. CourseHorse says:

    It can’t hurt to try a few before you pick a school to stick with – unless you’re using the reputation of the school to get you in somewhere, I’d focus on the classes that seem to make you most excited about it and offer you the most useful instruction that you might not have encountered elsewhere. Also, for a few other options, check out Gotham City Improv and the People’s Improv Group.

  5. eva says:

    I am fascinated with improv and would love to try it. But I am older (over 40! I feel like I’m confessing guilt to a horrible crime!) and a mom and it seems like improv (and comedy in general) is all about twentysomethings right out of college and not a very welcoming environment. Is there any group that welcomes “nontraditional” students? BTW, I just finished a Master’s Program and although everyone thought my scripts were very funny, every professor and working professional told me there was no future in comedy.

    Funny but discouraged!

  6. KL says:

    Eva’s post was from awhile back, but I will go ahead and answer anyway. I think improv classes are for anyone who wants to join them. They’re not just for 20 somethings. I’m 33 and a HS teacher by day; and after a 10 year hiatus from acting in college, I now take improv lessons regularly. Bring whatever you bring to the improv class–life experience you have that others may not have, your skills, your creative explosions. :D It’s important to know yourself and to be confident in your abilities. It’s all about bringing your POV in a scene, about listening, about surfing on the tide of the moment–not about age. If there is any incongruity in a scene regarding age or references you don’t understand from the younger generation, so be it. Life is full of people of all ages, and so I think it is good to have a balance, don’t you? Do what you love, we only have one life. Good luck.