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

Improv Resource Center Podcast with Amey Goerlich

Amey Goerlich talks to Kevin Mullaney about improv exercises and concepts. Amey is the host of the Indie Cagematch in at UCB East and an independent improv teacher in New York. We talk about Krompf, pummeling, improvising with your eyes closed, bad rap warmups, half ideas, button lines, teaching film to 5 year olds, e-Improv, and bonsai tree houses.

Links related to this episode:

Download the episode

Improv Resource Center Podcast with Karen Graci

Karen Graci is a coach and performer at iO West. She is also a writer for Girlboss, a new Netflix show in production. We talk about about coaching Harold teams, openings, group games, short form, and Vertical Harolds.

Karen Graci is a coach and performer at iO West. We talk about about coaching Harold teams, openings, group games, short form, and Vertical Harolds. She can be seen performing with King Ten at iO West. Special thanks to Camp Improv Utopia East where this podcast was recorded.

Check out this episode!

No Gap Dialog

A lot of improv dialog tends to settle into a regular rhythm, a ping pong back and forth that we encourage in new students. I say something, you listen, pause briefly to consider what I have said and respond. Then I pause briefly to consider what you’ve said and respond to you. This is one way to build a scene, but if this rhythm continues throughout the scene, it can be deadly boring—one polite line of dialog after another with a short polite pause in between each one.

Instead, try something I call No Gap Dialog. Here is a good template to try:

  • Two players enter and start a scene silently.
  • The players can take some time in the beginning of the scene to take each other in without speaking, 5 to 10 seconds of silence up top is good.
  • Then once one player speaks, both players must speak to each other without any pauses at all. They should almost be cutting each other off and finishing each other’s sentences.
  • Have someone side coaching you. They should snap their fingers if you are pausing between lines. And they should try to keep you going without gaps for about 60-90 seconds.

Do a round of this and see how it feels. What do you notice? Continue reading “No Gap Dialog”

Hump Night House Teams

I have put together a package deal for coaching though my new theater company, Under the Gun Theater, which I think is a terrific deal. It’s called the Hump Night House Team Project.

Instead of us holding auditions and choosing the teams, I’d like teams to form themselves and come to us. You sign up as a team in 8 week blocks. Each person on the team pays $100 and that covers all the costs for 8 two-hour rehearsals (coaching and space). You also will get up to 4 shows at the Hump Night Pregrame show (and for each show you get a free complimentary ticket to give out to a friend).

The more I’ve dealt with team systems over the years, the more I’ve felt that teams deserve to have as much autonomy as they can. Those are the teams that are more likely to have chemistry, to get along, and on average get better over time. If you want to add someone to the team, you can. If you want to take a break and come back after a few months, you can.

This is a meant to be a learning experience, a way for you to get better and have fun. No one is watching the shows, trying to decide who to cut from your team. If your team wants to stay together and we can find time to schedule rehearsals, you won’t get cut. It doesn’t work like.

I’m hoping that this will be the kind of project where performers and students grow and get better. Check out the site and let me know what you think.

Thoughts about coaching and teaching improv

As, I tweeted a while back, almost every teacher and coach (including me) talks too much. We should all talk a lot less and let our students get more reps in class. If possible, we should give them a chance to try it again immediately after getting a negative note. If your students can keep track of how many scenes they have improvised in your class, you have failed as a teacher.

Research on the effects of cardio vascular health on neurobiology seems pretty clear. The fitter you are > the fitter your brain will be > the better you will be at learning and the better you will be at the kind of executive functions that make good improvisors. So get your ass out there and exercise every day.

Exercise also has immediate short term benefits in learning environments, which means I’ll be starting rehearsals that I coach with active warmups that get people moving and their heart rates up. Be ready for it.

Keep things simple and focused. Work one muscle at a time in rehearsal. Repeat exercises from rehearsal to rehearsal or class to class. A student must practice a given skill many times for it to become second nature and useful on stage.

Also, you can’t really practice two things at once and certainly not three. Let students practice something over and over and until it becomes at least partially unconscious, before you add other layers on top of it.

Let students practice things slowly. Too often we are pushing people to do things fast before they have succeeded in doing them slow. In fact, force them to go far slower than they are used to sometimes. Then speed them up. Then slow them back down again.

For the first time in my life, I’m doing movement/physical theater classes. It’s silly and ridiculous and queer, but it’s also fun and playful and ultimately quite useful. I recommend it.