Keys to making a big improv jam work

Chicago improv has a lot of drop-in jams. You have the CIC Blender on Sunday nights at 8pm. Annoyance has the student jam on Mondays at 9:30, and right down the street the Playground does the Mixer at 10:00. Second City apparently has a Thursday night jam I did not know about, as well as a Musical improv jam on Saturdays at 4pm. iO Chicago just started a monthly DiOversity Jam. Various shows will do rando invitational Mash Up jams.

Do enough improv, do enough jams, and you’ll run into telltale jam issues: Inexperienced players. Tag out runs happening 10 seconds into your two person scene. Aggressive players taking liberties and steamrolling. Large meandering group scenes. Having to do improv with That Guy. The fact that you only get 10-20 minutes as an unfamiliar group to improvise, and that’s it. Jams are a great place to do some improv but not typically a great place to practice great scenework or things you want to work on.

A lot of these issues can be addressed with Will Hines’ classic That Guy advice to GO TO THEM, engage the source of your issue, meet them on their level and bring them to a level you both can enjoy. When you run into an issue that takes you out of the moment, the sooner you can jump back into the moment, the better.

One major issue this doesn’t address is the subject of a big jam, where everyone wants to play but there’s only so much time to get everyone in… meaning everyone has to go up in big, separated groups. In many jams, even a group of more than 6 can be troublingly large for a 10-15 minute jam, but in many cases groups of 8-10 are common. In these situations it’s clear that it’ll be very hard to keep everyone involved, let alone ensure everyone can have fun.

These are important things to do in a jam with big groups.

– This is not the time for slow 2-3 minute two person scenes. Players on stage should just be blunt and get to the heart of whatever idea they want to bring to the scene right away. These scenes should be about a minute long, and/or should include as many players as is reasonable. Scenes with 3-6 people should be typical and encouraged.

– HOWEVER. Tag runs are often quite confusing for the younger performers you see in a jam, and a tag where anyone’s not on the same page can take multiple people out of a scene and kill its momentum. You are much better off just editing to a brand new scene with whatever idea you want to bring in, than trying to walk on or tag in and start a run, unless the game of a walk on run or tag run is very obvious.

– Matching is VERY important in group scenes. Everyone needs to match and take one or two sides in a group scene, whether everyone is collectively monologuing as a single point of view, or doing a scene as two contrasting and separate points of view. Any more points of view than that and people will absolutely get lost. Everyone playing a group scene should do their best to match energies in a group scene. It’s better improv and it’s more fun.

– Again, these scenes should be edited quickly, unless the majority of the group is on stage and everybody is clearly having a good time, or off-stage players can find some way to do a run of walk ons (again, usually not a good idea, and it might be better to just edit into a new scene).

– This may be useful for jams with prelim workshops like the Playground Mixer: If possible, try to do a basic workshop or primer on the above ideas: Quick scene establishment, quick editing, match into one or two points of view in group scenes. This way, players know of and have those tools and concepts at their disposal, better equipping them to jump in and have fun.

A jam with too many people can still be fun if you proactively take a sound approach to doing so. Hopefully, this will help improvisers do so.

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