Learning Improv at Second City

This is a post about what I learned from Improv at Second City and my journey.  In August 2017, I signed up to Secondcity’s Improv Express Level 1. I have now just finished Level D, with one more level left.

I have organized it so you can get to Why, myths and how it helps out in the “real world” first.  If you care for my journey and what I learnt, that follows.

Why did I sign up?

  1. I wanted more laughter in my life
  2. Good way to meet new people
  3. Always looking for the next thing to challenge myself with
  4. I wanted to add more to my RPGing (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons)

What myths had I heard about Improv, before I started?

You have to be funnyNot true – The classes and the exercises lead you to commit fully to what you are doing. Those who were not trying to be funny were actually easier to play with.

“Don’t Go Onstage to be Funny. Make Relationships.”

He went on to say, in so many words, that audiences like to see relationships developed on stage, and that the “funny” will happen without having to force it IF relationships are made and the behavior is truthful.

Keith Johnstone

You have to be a natural performer. – Not true – Improv focuses more on the commitment you give and the energy with it. Most of us are not natural at anything (ok, I will give you breathing), we learn through experience and classes and exercises speed this up. You will become a better performer through playing the games.

You really have to understand American Culture. – 20% true – No doubt this helps, but you learn from your class and your class learns from you (about your culture). The fusion is something unique.

Do Improv classes help outside of Acting?

Here are some of the areas that Improv classes will help you with, in your real life:

  • Improvisation breaks down the barrier between mind and voice. It increases the mind’s ability to form ideas, and present them in a coherent, relevant manner. Maybe creativity, innovation, brainstorming helps in your life?…
  • Listening is a skill with definitive benefits to any job that involves humans.  Also it is good to hear large vehicles approaching…
  • Concentration skills, helping you to ‘tune in’ to aspects of communication that you might not have previously noticed.
  • Flexibility in your thinking means constantly reframing the situation, adjusting to the conversation you truly find yourself in, not the one you want to be in.
  • Improvisers think on their feet and recognize opportunities as they arise, rather than dismissing so much due to bad “critical thinking”


Why Second City?

Most of the people I spoke to about Improv had good things to say about Second City. Also Second City is just a 20 mins walk from home for me.

Here are the full options I explored:

  1. Annoyance – Taking care of your partner by taking care of yourself, the art of improv, and creating original shows. Mike Napier is the founder and has a unique approach read his post here
  2. ComedySportz – short form & Keith Johnstone games.
  3. IO – Long Form and The HaroldDel Close / Charna Halpern
  4. Second City – Short Form (Viola Spolin games), Sketch, Writing, Directing and a lot more

I should state that everyone who gave me advice said “start with one school and then move to another”. Play with different ensembles, and learn to trust all. The diversity will evolve your skills.

Which classes?

At Second City in Chicago, there are a lot of options for classes. The standard Improv track is one night or afternoon a week. There are a lot of times to choose from. There is also Express Improv, which is two nights a week.  I chose Express as it suits my learning style well.

My Journey

What did I learn from Improv, so far?

  • Commit FULLY – Be bold and CLEAR – Get the fuck out of that chair..
  • Remembering to PLAY again, be MORE spontaneous and be present today, right NOW MoFo
  • Make a choice – Be decisive but not judgmental
    • Give gifts, statements, the ridiculous, do not be timid, you aint a little lamb, you are A HUMAN, unless you are, a little lamb..
    • Taking unknown or unstated facts and shaping them to a new perception or new environment
    • Get comfortable with the uncomfortable
  • It’s fun to make the other person look good
    • ..but this do not mean you cannot initiate some crazy of your own
    • Do not take yourself so seriously, this is a team sport!
  • Play positive…
  • Yes And
    • Sometimes going with the flow is fun, NOT every great idea is yours
    • Be accepting to others’ gifts, every statement becomes the truth
    • Taking others ideas and understanding it better, or from a different approach
  • Listening like a MoFo
    • When someone expresses a feeling, acknowledge it and take it somewhere
  • There are no failures, only revelations. Failure is learning. Mistakes should not slow you down, just learn from them
  • Watching shows at Annoyance, ComedySportz, IO and Second City, helps you evolve your skills and ideas.
  • “the truth is funny”, and that all we need to do is get out of the way to find it

Improv Level A: Ensemble and Play

Murder Staba Yellow Catfish Ensemble = Angela, David, Eric, Gwen, John, Rose, Skyler, Will

Teacher = Cynthia Bangert, she was incredible supportive, and a great teacher to have as our first for SecondCity. You know its Cynthia because she has a scarf.


“Students get up and play a variety of exercises and games. These exercises and games train the analytical side of the brain to focus on simple goals, freeing the creative side and silencing the negative thoughts that can make us freeze in performance (or in life, for that matter). These games are high energy cooperation and a ton of fun to play.”

Level A – Second City

It seems that adulthood beats the shit out of our childlike wonder. This class helps you gain some of that back. We learned to be comfortable in uncomfortable circumstances, and to be comfortable being silly. We did a lot of silly and awkward things to overcome some of our fears of feeling awkward or fearing failure.  Every class I left with energy and smiles. This was an awesome class. Even if you never do any other class, with the right teacher and group, this class will change you.

Some of the things we learned:

  • How to play
  • Object work – Passing invisible objects and maintaining the object shape
  • Using Gibberish instead of English to focus on how to communicate without language
  • How to show Emotions at different intensities
  • Different ways to Heighten a scene e.g. tension
  • Learn to be open to transformation of scene – sharing control of the scene
  • Who = Relationships, define them quickly
  • Where = Location, show your location through your conversation and actions
  • What = activity/relationships dynamics

Improv B: Scene work

Murder Staba Yellow Catfish Ensemble = Angela, David Eric, Gwen, John, Rose, Skyler, Will

Teacher = Greg Komorowski, a smart Canadian teacher, who gave us a good range of feedback. Just call it FootBall…


..which emphasize ensemble building and freeing the creative, non-judgment part of the brain. Students also begin to improvise scenes, exploring exercises that isolate the different skills needed for successful scene work. Students also learn by observing classmates performing scenes, and receiving and observing instructor feedback.

Level B – Second City

Drilled in YES AND

  • Be better with our Spacework: Objects/Environment
  • Make statements in the scene to guide our partners – Assume Knowledge – Be Decisive
  • Listening – Yes, AND Building & Reacting
  • Everything is a gift = there are no mistakes
  • Connecting with eye contact, build connection with your scene partners fast
  • Beat your fear – go before you are ready
  • Mirroring/Give & Take

Improv Level C: Character Work

Ride that Bull Sally Ensemble = Angel, Colin, David, Eric, Eric, Gwen, Jen, John, Lisz

Teacher = Stephanie Anderson, thoughtful, great at giving notes, had some great characters. Check out Girlish.


Students learn how to improvise characters. They explore creating characters through internal motivations, like point of view, status, wants and intentions, and external ones, like experimenting with physicality. Students also continue to explore scene work in Improv Level C, learning how to perform three-person scenes, how to find the beats of scenes, and how to understand and apply subtext to scenes. They learn how to make choices in scenes that help define their character.

Level C – Second City

This class was a merger of two other classes plus one random, a very tall random. We had got comfortable with our previous two levels of class and now we had the opportunity to play with different people. I feel it took us a while to get to know each other. I had Sinus surgery the weekend before this class started and I was told not to do anything too energetic, drink or do anything fun, which meant that I didn’t have the energy to engage in the class the way I wanted to. However, I still got a lot out of it. The different people brought very different types of humor, characters and approaches.

The character class was less energy and a lot more thought provoking about who we are portraying and their relationship to the other characters.

Character Discovery


  • wants/intentions -> scenic subtext (actor objectives)
  • point of view (I think)
  • emotional perspective (I Feel)

Options for:

Responding to character wants/intentions (aka ways to yes and to scenic offers)

  1. React honestly
  2. Provide obstacles
  3. Feed the beast

Internal Discovery of Character (Status)

indicated through behaviors: e.g. vocal, physical, space use, spine, conversational style

  • High
  • Middle
  • Low

Beware of status traps!

  • Character Status NOT EQUAL socioeconomic status or job title
  • High Status NOT EQAL Villain or angry
  • LO Status NOT EQUAL idiot or sad

scenic issue vs conflict/fighting between characters that don’t care about each other

a conflict that may arise between characters who care or need each other

2017-11-15 21.57.28

Improv Level D: Advanced Scene Work

Ride that Bull Sally Ensemble = Angel, Colin, David, Eric, Eric, Gwen, Jen, John, Lisz

Teacher = Julia DiFerdinando, incredible amount of energy, she coached our skills to a much higher level.

Improv Class photo level D

Students explore advanced-level scene work. They focus on synthesizing all the elements that go into strong, well-rounded, dynamic scenes: character, emotion, ensemble, environment, relationship, status, transformation, and more. Students also continue to learn how to improvise group scenes, and receive an introduction to scene styles and genres.

Level D – Second City

We learnt a few new games, and essentially tried to tie together everything we had learned so far, to produce a performance. We focused on some of our collective weaknesses. It felt that everyone really grew in this class, whether it was to become more experimental, become better initiators, become a little more conscious of our effect on other people or more YES AND and less undercutting.

  1. Getting ready for performance – Practice, Practice, Practice
  2. Building strong initiations to scenes
  3. Exploring different characters
  4. Half A Musical Improv Class – this was real fun
  5. Played with a Level E group

Public Performance One – 16 Dec 2017

Barstool Philosophers 15th annual Toys for Tots Improv Show @ Den Theatre

Going Ape Ensemble = Mat, Eric, Pam, Chris, Amanda, Harry (Aka Garry)


Amanda was asked if she could get a gang together to be the warm up act for another Improv group, she grabbed some of her Second City ensemble and invited two strangers (Harry and I) to play with them. We rehearsed together for two hours, drank for a couple more and than the next day performed. The audience was great, the suggestions were fun and the person who invited us told us we “Killed it”.

Running Order – 20-30 mins

  1. Introduction, Host for Emotional symphony – Amanda
  2. Emotion Symphony – Chris, Eric, Harry, Mat and Pam (Suggestion pencil)
  3. Four Square – Chris, Eric, Pam, Harry -> Kevin Hosted
  4. Montarge – All In (Suggestion Star wars)

How did it feel?

The audience was warm, gave us good suggestions. It went really fast, there was a lot of laughter, some awkward but fun pauses.. I felt we listened to each other and committed into all the defined scenes. I really enjoyed playing with this ensemble and playing on that stage.

Public Performance Two – 17 Dec 2017

Improv D Show @ SkyBox Theatre, Second City, Chicago

Ride that Bull Sally Ensemble = Angel, Colin, David, Eric, Eric, Gwen, Jen, John, Lisz

Ride that Bull Sally ensemble show at second city

Running Order – 40 -50 mins

  1. Introduction and first game intro – Eric Brooke
  2. Pimp Freeze – All In
  3. 184 Intro – Angel
  4. 184 – All In
  5. Four Square Intro and Host – Colin
  6. Four Square – David, Jen, John, Lis
  7. Take That Back Host – John
  8. Take That Back – Gwen and Eric Barton
  9. Soap Opera Host – Jen
  10. Soap Opera – Angel, Colin, Eric Brooke
  11. Montage Host – Lis (Suggestion Courage)
  12. Montage – All In
  13. Close – Eric Barton

How did it feel?

The audience was warm, it was after all mostly people we had invited! The hosting across the board was strong, the games varied, with Pimp Freeze, Take that Back and the Soap Opera being our strongest deliveries.  All the others had moments too e.g. Witch Doctor dance or the Boy that jumped in the Montage.  It was a really fun experience. After I spoke to my friends and they all laughed at something and enjoyed the show. Everyone of the ensemble shined at something, it was a lot of fun!

Next Steps

I found the singing stressed me in the half class that we had, so next term I will take Vocal 1 and finish off Improv Level E.


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