Seven ways to improve your improv experience

Pictured: Troy Zimmerman, Michael Ritchie, Eric Knobel

Pictured: Troy Zimmerman, Michael Ritchie, Eric Knobel

Huge Theater executive director Butch Roy still remembers the time he had to bring up the house lights and ask an audience member to stop shouting out during the middle of a performance.

"When you shut a heckler down it ruins the show for everybody," Roy says.

Improv comedy is tricky in the sense that the audience is expected to participate, but must also know when participation is inappropriate or unwanted. With the eighth annual Twin Cities Improv Festival starting today at HUGE Theater, we spoke with local improv performers to put together seven ways to get the best experience out of a show without ruining it for the audience, the performers, and yourself.


1) It's not about you

It's common for Huge Theater to get calls inquiring about hosting a bachelorette party during one of their improv shows. Roy's answer is always the same: "You can come and participate, but don't expect to be the show."

With improv, audience participation is vital since the performers act out audience suggestions. At venues like ComedySportz, where they play improv games, audience members are even asked to come up onstage at times to act out scenes with the performers.

But sometimes that participation crosses the line, says Brave New Workshop's artistic director Caleb McEwen, like when audience members try to hog the spotlight. "It's a pretty rare occurrence," he says, "but when it happens it's very annoying for the performers."

"If you think you're funnier than the people who are performing, then you should be onstage," McEwen says. "You should be performing."

Roy says he can understand why some audience members feel that blurting out unprompted thoughts is okay, since improv is more laid-back than other forms of theater. But the audience should be aware that there are times when they're expected to participate, and times where they are expected to sit back and enjoy the show.

"[Any participation] should be initiated by the show," Roy says. "If we need things along the way, we'll let you know."

2) Shock value doesn't equal funny    

Katy McEwen has been performing and directing improv at Brave New Workshop for over 10 years, and has heard every shocking suggestion in the book. "Last week we did a whole thing about diarrhea," she says.

People shout out gross things for shock value and to get a laugh. But Katy McEwen says revolving entire scenes around gross things can cause the show to lose momentum quickly, especially during long-form improv shows, which take one or two suggestions and create much longer scenes with them.

"It's not going to make for a good scene," she says. "You get to watch a whole scene, and in some cases that's 30 to 40 minutes."

Caleb McEwen says going for shock value gets a quick laugh, but doesn't sustain and isn't original. He suggests trying to break free from the crutch of shock, and trying to come up with something that will benefit the show in the long run.

"Trust me, anyone who's been improvising for any period of time has probably heard just about anything you think is shocking about 100 times before," he says.

3) Lay off the sauce

We've all seen it before. Someone has too much to drink, starts heckling the performance, and is inevitably dragged out of the room. It's never a pretty sight, and it also disrupts the show for everyone. Don't be that guy. Moderate your drinking.

"Alcohol plus improv can at times equal disaster because you just upped the asshole factor," says ComedySportz artistic director Doug Neithercott.

There are a lot of people who are already assholes, Neithercott explains, so giving them alcohol and an atmosphere to yell things out sometimes turns into a bad situation. A few drinks can loosen up a crowd and make for a great night of comedy, but making sure to moderate your drinking is important. ComedySportz is a family-friendly joint, for example, and any comment that's too lewd or aggressive may land you with a brown paper bag over your head or kicked out of the show.

4) Be engaged and contribute

On the other hand, it can be worse when an audience is too shy. The best performances come from audiences that are engaged and want to be there.

"You're part of the equation because it's live theater," Katy McEwen says. "If you are more engaged, then the cast is going to do a better job, they're going to feed off that energy, and it's just going to be a better experience for everyone."

Every improv performance is different by nature, so the audience that helps contribute to the show in an engaging way will be the one to get the most from it.

5) Police rude audience members

If you started talking loudly on your phone at a Guthrie show, you can expect that a fellow audience member would tell you to stop. Butch Roy thinks the same should apply at improv shows.

"If the guy behind you taps you on the shoulder and tells you to shut your mouth, it reads very differently," Roy says. "It's so much better when it comes from a peer. It finally somehow sinks in."

Audience members seem to respond better to peers than those in authority, he says, so if you want to enjoy your show without unwanted interruptions, police rude audience members yourself.

6) If you bring your kids, control them

Improv can be a blast for adults and children alike, so long as parents control their children when they bring them.

ComedySportz is all ages, so they're used to having kids around during shows. But kids also have fewer filters, and often blurt things out at inappropriate times, Neithercott says, so keeping them in line can help the show run smoother.

"We're not a Chuck E. Cheese," he says. "It's still a theater. There's decorum."

7) Come with an open mind, have fun

When it comes down to it, an improv show is what you make of it. If you come with the expectation of having fun, and remember that the performances are all fully improvised, you're going to have a good time. Try to make the show fun and chances are it will be.

"You make or break the show," says Caleb McEwen. "You certainly have the power to make it unsuccessful."


Twin Cities Improv Fest
Huge Improv Theater
3037 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
$12 per performance
For schedule and tickets, call 612.412.4843 or visit online.