When the Student teaches the Master

On Cloud Nine
4 min readApr 9, 2024

When we are teaching improv, there’s always a time we spot a veteran teacher who is more experienced than us in the class. Often, this makes us a little nervous: Am I teaching the right way? Would I make statements which are not true, and get a cough of disapproval? What am I supposed to teach them? Most mysteriously… WHY are they taking your class?

I thought of this during Impro Amsterdam, a festival bringing in great talents from all over Europe, where I taught two workshops. A handful of workshop students are esteemed peers and professionals like Stephen Davidson and Billy Kissa, there’s even a respected teacher like Joe Bill who has done improv 30 years longer than I have.

The first workshop, Fairy Tales From The East, I could understand — it is a specialized topic where I know significantly more about Eastern culture than any of the students. The second workshop, Being A Dream Partner, is a more universal topic of improv skills. It’s new to most students, but why would a master like Joe Bill take this class?

Teaching “Fairy Tales from the East”. @ Impro Amsterdam
Teaching “Being A Dream Partner” @ Impro Amsterdam

Thankfully, doubt didn’t creep up. Because I think back what it’s like to be on the other side of the coin (me being the student, the teacher being less experienced). At Impro Neuf, for instance, I’ve taught a generation of teachers, who taught another generation of teachers, who now run the workshops. Now I am the one taking their workshops. Why?

  1. There’s always new material. It’s fun to see how improv knowledge evolves and meshes from different sources. Sometimes I see the fruits of my inception, other times there are completely new strains no idea where they came from.
  2. There’s always a different perspective. Even if it’s 100% a topic that I already know, it’s fun to see that different teachers emphasize on different things. This makes you rethink and solidify your own ideas.
  3. There’s always a different way to teach. Honestly, sometimes if I already know the exercise, I pay attention not to the material, but to the technical side of how they are teaching it. I pick up notes what works and what can be difficult to teach.
  4. It’s fun. Lastly, there’s often no real reason than to simply, have fun. I like improv.

All this to say: as a teacher, when you see a “veteran teacher” (a.k.a. master) join your workshop, there’s no need to be nervous. They take this workshop not to challenge you, nor be a Righteous Paladin of Good Improv — why would they? Masters don’t sabotage. In fact, it’s the opposite, most often I find them to be the most helpful students in my class. They mostly keep quiet, figuring out how what you say blends into their own theories. But when you call upon them, they step up and crush the exercise!

To round off, here are practical points if you are running your workshop and Susan Messing pops in:

  1. Don’t defer. It’s tempting to just hand over the exercise instructions to the master and ask how it’s supposed to be. Don’t. They are here to see how you do it. It’s also not a good signal for the other students to look over to another “student” for instructions. It messes up the class hierarchy.
  2. Don’t seek approval. You don’t need to look over to the vets to see if you’re doing good. They are already here because of you. (You can ask for approval after the class).
  3. Don’t worry about “but they know this already”. You don’t have to overstretch your material so that that experienced student learn something new. If you have listed it as an Object Work class, teach Object Work how you had planned it. (No one should be upset to sign up for a topic, and then get exactly that.)
  4. Use them for difficult exercises. Although you don’t defer to the vets for teaching, you can take advantage of them for demonstrations. Sometimes there are hard exercises — those with multiple instructions or unnatural behavior (side note: a lot of improv is unnatural behavior) —which you want to nail right to build confidence for the class. The exercises can be super heady if the other students haven’t seen in action. I like to use the veterans first, and then another demo with everyone else. Having an experienced person helps your workshop.

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On Cloud Nine

An Impro Neuf blog. Evolving thoughts on improv from Aree Witoelar, teacher/founder of Impro Neuf International in Oslo, Norway.