Deliberate Practice, Not Just Reps

Over the last few years, I have thought a lot about how we approach improv training, and I think we can do much better than we do. To develop mastery in any art form takes practice, not just reps. What is the difference?

Deliberate practice means focused, challenging exercises with specific goals, led by a coach or teacher who knows how to encourage you to be better. It means nudging students to get to that sweet spot of learning where they are reaching just beyond their current capabilities. Truly effective training is hard, it should leave you mentally tired. But when you practice like this, you get better.

Improv programs shouldn’t just be about filling a notebook with ideas that you might practice later. They should be about getting better now. You should be able to walk away on the last day knowing that you acquired skills that you can put into practice the next time you improvise.

If this kind of training sounds intriguing to you, think about studying with the me at the Improv Resource Center. We offer drop in classes and the Core Improv Program – 24 week program which teaches a specific process for improvising scenes. Find out more about it at

Why Improv Boot Camp?

This summer I’m trying something quite different from what I’ve done in the past. I’m going to be teaching a new kind of intensive improv class. It’s an Improv Boot Camp, a training program designed to work specific skills, develop a powerful set of tools, and to practice them many times in different ways over a four week period.

Most summer intensive improv programs have a fairly broad spectrum of topics that they try to cover. If you are just starting out in improv and you are looking to get exposed to a lot of different ideas and try many exercises in a short period of time, you should look at those programs. Those programs can be quite stimulating. But they can also be overwhelming. So many great ideas, but far too few chances to practice them. Often the classes are too large, and you might only do an exercise once, on one day, never to try it again.

My program is for the improvisor who has some experience. They know the basics. They already have a notebook full of ideas and concepts. They enjoy improv, and they want to be great at it. What they need is practice, not another 20 exercises that they’ll only do once. Continue reading “Why Improv Boot Camp?”

Questions, Arguments, and Trying to be Funny

In your first few improv classes you often get very broad guidelines of how to create good improv scenes. For instance, you are taught things like “Always yes-and your scene partner!” or “Never ask questions!” or “Don’t try to be funny!” These rules are often useful, but improvisors tend to hold on to them too long. They judge their scene work against these rules when the rules don’t apply. And these rules get in the way of learning new things.

For instance when I teach people how to discover games in their scenes, I encourage them to ask questions and to disagree with the other character. We talk openly about trying to make the scene more funny, and this frustrates some improvisors. Sometimes it frustrates them so much that they reject the concept of the Game of the Scene altogether, and that is a shame.


Why do we tell students to avoid questions? Continue reading “Questions, Arguments, and Trying to be Funny”

Behavior is a Game, A Workshop with Kevin Mullaney

Kevin MullaneySaturday, June 1, 2013
11:00 am – 3:00 pm

At Upstairs Gallery
5219 N Clark
Third Floor

A Workshop with Kevin Mullaney
Behavior is a Game
This is a four hour workshop with CIF Artistic Director Kevin Mullaney.

Observe your scene partner, call out their behavior, respond impulsively and let the circumstances tumble out to make a game.

Some of the most fun games to play in a scene come from the emotional interplay of the characters. One player’s behavior inspires an impulsive response in their partner. Patterns of behavior emerge and help form behavior-based games. Justifications bubble up from your unconscious to make sense of what’s happening which leads to more ideas of how to play the game.


For more information about what this class will be about, take a look at the following essays:

This one day intensive class is open to improvisors of all levels.

Next tuesday night improv performance class postponed 2 weeks

mullaney-with-beard-square-150x150Due mainly to my ongoing preparations for the Chicago Improv Festival, I have rescheduled the start date of my Tuesday night class. It will now be starting on April 9th and go to June 4th. The class is for intermediate and advanced performers and includes 4 performances. The cost is $199.

Looking for a Hump Night intern

How would you like to be a Hump Night intern and take my Monday night performance class for free?

Right now I’m looking for someone to help with box office, tech and setup on Wednesday nights at Hump Night. In return for working the show, you could take my Monday night improv class for free. If you are interested, please send me an email ( with any relavant tech or box office experience (not required). In addition, fill out the application for the class.

Read more about Hump Night.
Read more about my Monday Night Improv Performance Class which starts on February 4th.

Feedback from previous Improvising from the Gut workshops

I’m offering a two day intensive version of my Improvising from the Gut workshop. It’s coming up in two weeks.

I thought people might want to read some feedback from previous versions of this workshop:

“What I got, was an amazingly intense experience that demanded everyone involved to put their guard down and truly emote and share… What took place in the scene work was extraordinary… At first it was interesting how well we were all doing, by the end it was almost surreal as to how well we had worked together and what it would have been if it were a complete show.”

– Patrick McInnis

“I liked everything about the class… the warm ups were perfect… the exercises lead up to the scene work well… and there was a causal but learning atmosphere tended by Kevin… and his notes were specific and personal to each individual yet as an observer to scenes I learned as well. Kevin has an ability to and break down complex organic thoughts and simplify them… therefore making it easier to ‘grab hold’ of and ‘work with’ these ideas. I came out of the workshop with a better understanding of MY improv and I think this would be a great class for 6-8 weeks.”

– Ben Jones

“Your workshop was one of the my top highlights from the Del Close Marathon. I found it immediately useful in my work the next night. I was more patient, more observant, and less anguish about inventing things to say than I’ve been in months. You opened my mind and emotions in a way I’ve not experienced in my improvisation training. I am telling all my friends to take this class! It will not only make you a better improviser. I dare say it will make you a better person.”

– Justin Zell, Co-owner/Instructor, Steel City Improv Theater

“I would definitely recommend this workshop. It’s one of the few that seems to directly improve acting muscles. It strips away everything except the actors affecting each other, and gives you practice using your natural energies to inform a scene. The exercises in this class transformed the way I perform on stage for the better.”

Will Hines, The Stepfathers, UCB Theatre, Co-Host of the UCB Theatre New York Podcast, and the Associate Academic Supervisor for the UCB Training Center

“Yes, I’d totally recommend this workshop. You don’t have to think about what you should be doing or what’s right for the scene, you can just do whatever impulse you have. It’s quite freeing!”

Kirk Damato

“It lets both new and experienced improvisers hone a very particular skill — observing and responding to your scene partner — that is fundamental to all improv, but for whatever reason can get lost in the shuffle of daily improv classes and performance. It feels like a back-to-basics approach without being simplistic or boring for experienced improvisers.”

– Silvija Ozols, The Stepfathers, UCB Theatre

“I’d absolutely recommend this workshop to a friend, and already have.”

– David Siegel

“I took eight workshops during [the Del Close Marathon], and (not to disparage the other wonderful classes I took) yours was by far the most helpful to me. I get recurring notes about staying connected to scenes emotionally, and your exercises were perfect for that. The going from repetition into scenework exercise was particularly useful for me, and it completely got me out of my left brain. I would highly recommend the workshop to friends. It’s unlike anything else I’ve taken. I felt like it broke my brain in a great way.”

– Brynna Campbell

“I whole-heartedly believe that every improviser should take this workshop. I can only speak for New York, but this workshop helped maintain performers’ authenticity in a scene, no matter what the scenario. That’s something everyone can use.”

– Cory Palmer

” Improvisers, in general, need more of this kind of training. You kept us up on our feet most
of the time and your insights on acting, as well as improv, were
always helpful.”

– Mark Grenier, Magnet Theater

“The awareness/reminder of gut emotional reaction as a tool created opportunities in scenes the very next time I walked on stage.”

– William Cybriwsky

“I enjoyed how the workshop built patiently on itself. The Meisner-ish techniques are really great for people like me who is UCB trained and always looking for game. This made me jolt out of that and be organic from start to end.”

– Peter Kim, Executive Director, End Games Improv

Feedback from recent students

Here is some of the feedback I got from my last Improv Performance Workshop. Robert Carter has been my assistant for the last couple of classes, so some of the notes refer to him as well.

Here is some of the feedback I got from my last Improv Performance Workshop. Robert Carter has been my assistant for the last couple of classes, so some of the notes refer to him as well.

“My favorite thing about the class was that it was focused on ‘doing.’ We spent a lot of time up on our feet, doing scenes and running pieces. In this class I felt like you and Robert struck just the right balance between sharing your point of view as teachers with the class and then allowing us to experience putting your lessons into practice.” –John Sexton

“What did I like? Really, just about everything. I like that we spent most of our time on our feet ‘doing.’ And that exercises seemed to be pulled from a broad spectrum of improv and acting disciplines. And that our notes, whether group or individual, were always reasonable and applicable. And that you and Robert both have (and impart) a real passion for the craft. In short, I derived more from 8 weeks with Kevin Mullaney than I did from 40 weeks at Some Unnamed Chicago Improv Institution.” -Mathew Fenton

“It was a great experience, and I learned so much from you, Robert and everyone else. A lot of the exercises we worked on have really helped inform my process, both as a performer and as a coach; in particular, I think the explanation of how to form a situation at the beginning of a scene let me learn new ways to approach setups and initiations. In addition, the acknowledgement/nodding exercise helped give me new ways to support scenes I didn’t initiate. This has been especially useful for me.” -Phil Caron

“My favorite part of the class was that each week felt like a response to the previous week/most recent show, rather than like it was simply the slave to a rigid preordained curriculum. I loved that our strengths and weaknesses (as both individuals and as a class) were not only being identified and pointed out, but then actually worked on, which is an experience I’ve never had in an improv class before. I genuinely feel like there were concepts that were huge weaknesses for me at the beginning of the class that made legitimate progress towards becoming strengths by the end of it, as opposed to just being vague conceptions of things I should be conscious of in the future, which is what has often happened in other classes I’ve taken.

“Also, I think it’s important to note that this class was really fun. Everyone was really supportive, and I feel like each person’s unique style was celebrated in such a way that it led everyone to do better scenework than they might have done otherwise. I feel like the class—occasionally, at least—brought out the best in me, and that definitely was also one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much (and would love to do it again!).” -Kyle Reinhard

I am offering two more improv performance classes for the new year. The January class on Tuesday nights is sold out, but there is still room in the Monday night class starting in February.

Improvising From the Gut – Weekend Intensive

In this two day intensive class, you will learn how to begin scenes by observing and connecting with your scene partners and trusting your gut. By owning your reactions and provoking reactions in your scene partner, you will build exciting, unpredictable and fun scenes with strong emotional games.

In this two day intensive class, you will learn how to begin scenes by observing and connecting with your scene partners and trusting your gut. By owning your reactions and provoking reactions in your scene partner, you will build exciting, unpredictable and fun scenes with strong emotional games.

Kevin Mullaney
Kevin Mullaney

When is the class?

Class meets Saturday January 19th and Sunday January 20th, noon-4pm

Where is the class?

Upstairs Gallery
5219 North Clark Street
Third Floor
Chicago, IL 60640

How much will the class cost?


Applications for this are closed.

Who is Kevin Mullaney?

Kevin Mullaney is the current Artistic Director of the Chicago Improv Festival. He was the original Artistic Director for the UCB Theatre in New York. He was also the first director of their training program. Before that he taught at iO Theatre and directed their touring company, the iO Road Show. He is the host of the Improv Resource Center Podcast and has acted in recent productions by WildClaw Theatre, Caffeine Theatre and Will Act For Food. Find out more about Kevin Mullaney here.