When it comes to teaching improv classes, there aren’t many teachers more well-known than Jimmy Carrane. Over the last 30 years, Jimmy has taught at Second City, iO Chicago, The Annoyance Theater, Victory Gardens Theater and more, as well as appeared in numerous films and TV shows and served as the host of Studio 312 on WBEZ.
Today, Jimmy hosts the successful podcast Improv Nerd and teaches his own unique method, The Art of Slow Comedy, at Green Shirt Studio.
We recently sat down with Jimmy to ask him about what he loves about improv and why learning how to improvise from an authentic, emotional place is so important for actors as well as improvisers.
Q: How did you first get into improv?
Carrane: Being funny has always been one of my super powers since I was a kid. I was a fat kid who didn’t belong, so making people laugh was my way of feeling accepted. When I graduated from high school, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life except that I knew I did not want to go away to college. I remember seeing a Second City Main Stage show a couple of years before and knew that the original cast of Saturday Night Live had come from there, so in the back of my mind I thought, “That looks like fun.” So, I started taking improv classes, and everything I got in trouble for I was now being rewarded for in improv class.
Q: What was one of your favorite improv shows that you were ever a part of?
Carrane: So many. Jazz Freddy was pretty special, because it was one of the first shows to bring long form improvisation into an actual theater. The cast was amazing, and we got such great reviews, which always helps. We were a really big deal at the time, I just never realized it until years later when a younger generation of improvisers would come up to me and say, “Jazz Freddy really inspired us.”
What made that show so successful, I think, is because we treated the show like we had been cast in a play. We rehearsed three or four nights a week. No one was running off to do other improv shows. It was our only commitment. That is one of the reasons that show worked because we put the work into it.
Q: Why is it important for actors to take improv?
Carrane: Where do I start? If you are an actor in Chicago today, I would say it’s a must. More and more casting agents are asking actors to improvise during auditions, so not only is it important to have the skill, but it’s also important to have on your resume. This will open you up to many more paying opportunities. If you are an actor who can also improvise, it gives you an edge up on the competition because you a much more well-rounded actor. In improv class, actors learn how to take direction in seconds, how to have fun and be silly, and how to really connect with their partner on stage. It gives them a new confidence and great stage presence. I hope I did not leave anything out.
Q: Why do you love about working with actors?
Carrane: I love when an actor first comes into my class and is afraid of improv or has this idea they are no good at it, or my all-time favorite, they think improv needs to be a certain way so they amp everything thing up in a really phony kind of way. Imagine the worst kind of children’s theater where the actors are screaming their lines. In just a couple of weeks, we strip all that away and get them in touch what they do well, which is acting. They start to trust their instincts and have fun, and soon the dialogue just floats out their mouths and they create scenes that are almost like plays. What I love most is toward the end of the class, they start saying things like, “This is so easy.”
Q: Who do you prefer to work with: actors or improvisers?
Carrane: Both. The best classes have a mix of both actors and improvisers, because they can learn from each other. I also love to have a range of ages in my improv classes. In fact, my classes skew a little older, but we always get a nice mix of younger and older people. I think my style of improv is adaptable for a mature improviser and an actor.
Q: You’ve taken Meisner classes. How has that influenced your improv?
Carrane: Advanced repetition is the purest form of improv and stresses the importance of focusing on your partner from moment to moment. My improv classes include a bastardized version of that to get my students to work off their partner.
Q: You teach an improv class called the Art of Slow Comedy. Can you explain what people can expect to experience in your class?
Carrane: The Art of Slow Comedy has evolved since I started teaching it. It’s a culmination of all the things I have learned as an actor and improviser. It’s like an improv class for actors or an acting class for improvisers. My goal is simple, and that is to make you believable on stage. It’s not necessarily to be the funniest, though that seems to happen automatically, but to be able to act your way through an improv scene. I encourage my students to be emotionally committed, to react to their partner in the moment, and to create realistic dialogue. To do this, you will tap into your life experience which will make you compelling on stage.
Q: What do you love about teaching?
Carrane: There is so much. I approach teaching like a collaboration. It’s an ongoing dialogue between me and the students where we are finding out what we need to work on together. That is super exciting. As a teacher, I am improvising my lesson plan and giving them what they need in the moment. I love helping students get over certain blocks in their performing and using certain improv exercises as a way of exposing them. I love the community that I’m able to create in my improv classes, even if it only lasts for just 18 weeks.
Jimmy Carrane’s next Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class starts Sept. 14 at Green Shirt Studio and runs on Wednesdays from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Sign up by Sept. 1 to receive the Early Bird discount.