THAT’S A WRAP – Improvisation school #1

Published by ShawnKinley on

That's a WRAP! 1st Impro School

 In the spirit of Risk, Play, and Growth, Improvisation is not a destination.  Improvisation is the process that continues as a lesson, action and curious exploration for a lifetime.  

Here are some of the lessons I observed as I taught this 1st version of the IMPROVISATION SCHOOL August/September 2023.

This school was announced before the pandemic. Covid had other plans and told us to slow down, re-evaluate, and re-imagine.

Most of the original students who enthusiastically committed at the beginning to this two month marathon of impro-learning hung on and leaped in August. 1 2023 for the adventure.

Turmoil,  Frustration, Discovery, Fun, Anxiety, Excitement,

MOST people who leave their home, their culture, their family and the safe comfort of their world eventually show some natural anxiety. We miss home. We miss our loved ones. We miss that favourite drink and food from that place down the street.

The inner changes affect us most of all. If you confront a person’s ideas and ego with challenging alternatives they will feel frustration when parts of their identity fight against the inevitable internal battles to change, resist, accept or adapt to new ideas.

I knew this shift and change would happen in our 60+ days at the Improvisation School to those with rigid or frail egos. It’s interesting that sometimes those who admit they know little tend to be stronger than those who come in stating greater learnings.

Confront someone’s truth ONCE and most people are okay.  Have them experience that confrontation for two months and pieces of their identity show cracks.

I don’t know if this is a good thing but I think it’s common and natural.  I don’t like watching this “break” but…. when a person wants change and stands in the way of their own change,  then it’s not going to be an easy journey. The frustration is inevitable for those unwilling to let go of old ideas and images of self. 

Everyone in this group had moments where the pressure showed. Tears, giving up, anger… And without fail, those who let old habits die, came out stronger and wiser on the other side. 

My fear is for some people is that new information becomes the new shaky ground for future frustration. Learning information is easy. Changing your underlying behaviour is the difficult part. Learning that the answers are not in the information of your past but in the changing reality of the NOW  is more than some people are ready for.

In Improvisation, the information is not the rule. Your partner is the rule. You improvise with others. Adapt to those on stage and in life and you will never have problems. 

In one mid-course exercise, I gave each person someone else’s name. They were told to secretly take care of that person. They were told not to be noticed caring for the other but to help that person on their impro journey.

Not everyone accomplished the task. Some people got so concerned with what they should do for themselves that they forgot their partner. (consistently). The unfortunate outcome is that those who failed to care for their partner failed to work effectively on their own skills.

For those who actively helped others, there were important benefits that they themselves could have learned from.

  •   Help the controlling person listen to others and you might discover your own strength to lead.
  •  Help the self-conscious performer be brave and you might train yourself in empathy and awareness.
  •  Help the joker on stage to attend to the story and you might learn more about narrative.

If I told you to help Janine express herself more on stage would you try? Janine is reluctant to say what she feels because she wants others to have space. She also feels others know more than she does. 

Maybe you are a competent, confident, storytelling improviser with “amazing” ideas. Will you have the strength to give up a bit of your controlling nature to give her space to express herself? Can you ask her the question she needs to answer in a way that doesn’t demand the answer you want?  Are you willing to do that in performance?

Left to your own development, there’s a good chance that you will rarely be challenged. You might feel that others are anchors, holding you back and so, you LEAD without considering your partner. YOU want to succeed in the way you believe is right and miss other right ways of being.

IF you engaged and brought Janine out of her weakness, however, you would not only develop her confidence and skills, you would discover another tool in story development for yourself. You would develop a better attitude towards your partner. You would break rigid behaviour offering you more exciting possibilities for your own work. You would practice awareness and relationship skills that are the hallmark of greater improvisers.

It’s not a distraction to your development to do this.  It is your development. 

Some people wanted the answers and lessons RIGHT NOW!  They wanted change so badly that they ignored it when it happened and failed to build on it when it was there.

Some people grasp lessons in seconds. We call them “naturals”. There’s a good chance however that they have had this lesson in another form at some time earlier in life. It’s the right time and the right place for this “new” idea… for them. If you aren’t getting it, be patient. Your time will come.

There are those who feel like they’ve heard the lesson a thousand times and they still don’t get it. Those people might be expecting the words to be enough. It rarely is. It needs practice

Without becoming your own teacher, many of the words remain just words. You need to apply the ideas and explore what happens when you use them. You need to alter the ideas. You play with them and find the subtlety that makes the idea worth keeping in your toolbox. That’s what a child does.

Children constantly put wooden shapes into little wooden boxes while their body learns the subtlety of the exercise and the complexity that comes from doing the same thing over and over with 1000 variations. They cannot learn by words. They cannot learn it deeply without doing it and exploring, failing and succeeding. They don’t have a history or comparison of what it should be and so they are fully present in the process. Unlike adults.

Because no information is improvisation in itself, you need to find out why the information in front of you has value and how YOU are going to use it.

There are people whose resistance is so thick, that the important ideas are discarded because it feels too contradictory to what the person knows. Being truly open to information is harder than it seems.

If you’ve already decided what improvisation IS, give up. You are only looking for confirmation of what you already know. 

When you know what works for you, you might never find what else could work for you or what might work better.

One day you might get bored with your own behaviour and you will be more open to other ways. 

And maybe you won’t. (Some people are stubborn).

If you know that you are only in class to prove what you know is RIGHT save your money and the frustration of your classmates. 


I remember hearing about a director who taught classes and explicitly told his students not to do what he taught them in his shows for two years. WHAT””?!?!?!  His reasoning was that forcing ideas was not going to yield great results. He also knew that if the information he taught had an impact on the student then the lesson would appear naturally in their performance without them trying.

Delay gratification to prove yourself. Do the work and live in the process. You have a long career ahead of you. You don’t always have to prove yourself


Are you doing it to “look good”? Are you in it because you love improvisation? Is it a social thing? Are you a masochist who loves the torment of the struggle?

How you learn and grow depends on why you are involved in all of this. And it will guide who should be your teacher.

If the audience is your most influential teacher, you might be putting yourself into the hands of some people who only want you to look like an idiot. Not smart. 

If you only want people to say good things about your work you risk liars being the voice that moulds you.  Some people exaggerate what they say because they want you to “feel good”. If you believe them, you might feel good, for now, but you will wake up one day to an honest person who says they are unimpressed with what you are doing.

 Attend to your needs when you are suffering. Attend to others when they are. Keep the balance when you are both in trouble. And play and enjoy when everything is flowing together.


I first set out to have a 6 person class. I knew that was risky. What if there were one or two difficult people? That would put a larger burden on everyone in a smaller class. (It’s much easier to absorb the difficulties in a larger environment)

When we lost a person at the last moments before classes started and none of the people on the waiting list could come, I formed an idea to share that 6th spot with guests from the local improvisation community. This turned into a great highlight. The people from the community were always explosions of energy and joy that inspired the class. Thanks Kati, Rhys, Ben, Lee, Kristan, Susan, Gabbie, Aaron, Sara, Bonnie and Aaron.

And when the circus came to town, the clowns visited the improvisers. Cirque du Soleil was visiting Calgary with their show KOOZA. A clown in the show (Duncan) and I knew each other from a visit many years ago. Duncan contacted me about impro and I invited him to the class. His presence was a gift to the group.

(And they all loved the backstage tour when they visited him after watching his show under the Big Top.)

Then there was the location of the classes!
We started in my big open area in my home and it was nice to have some classes in the backyard on the days it wasn’t too hot. 

Then we discovered 7 open spaces in the city. The locations themselves were lessons for students in how to teach in different environments and each neighbourhood was an added lesson in Improvisation.

The downtown library had big spaces that felt like an aquarium with big glass walls – great for people who alter their behaviour when seen by their audience.

The Bowness location supplied a stack of children’s seating pillows. Those pillows were the inspiration for numerous games and useful exercises including the important lesson of how to develop teaching skills based on the tools at hand.

You don’t always need to know beforehand what to do. Sometimes you just need to know that there are tools all around that make potential lessons if you are willing to play with them.

Out of loss and limitation came discovery and inspiration. What could have been seen as setbacks became additions to our experience.

When we lost one of six original participants, the hole in the group was a door to so many inspired others.

The uncertainty of location became a rich and diverse community for us to interact in.

A local improviser, Aaron Ranger, was kind enough to enthusiastically open the doors of their workshop space (Kinkonauts) every Monday. From that space, the improvisers met another population of performers and gained opportunities themselves to teach and perform.

The ongoing benefit (I hope) is that the community of improvisers is a little closer than what they were before we started.

Along with our 5 school improvisers, our final show had improvisers from three other groups. It was a benefit show that raised more than 400 dollars for refugees who have been displaced from their own homes, families, friends and values.

It comes full circle.

Like a good scene that ends with the theme it began with, the community overcame anxiety and partners hopefully helped those who were without a stable home and immersed in changing ideas. In this adventure, we were better off than where we started from. 

Special thanks to all those who joined us including the wonderful people at the Kinkonauts, and Red Deer’s Bull Skit.

Keep Improvising!!! See you next year.


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