Advice and Tips for Actors Helpful thoughts on acting from someone who wasn't the least successful actor of all time.

April 12, 2010

REVIEW: Groundlings Improv and Writing Classes

The Groundlings are a sketch and improvisation troupe and theater in Los Angeles on Melrose Boulevard.  Their alumni include famous people such as Will Farrell and Conan O’Brien as well as a huge chunk of the Saturday Night Life cast members.  They offer classes in improvisation technique as well as writing.  From these classes they pick the “best” and with hard work, luck and lots of time the students can become members of The Groundlings troupe.

I absolutely loved every class, every teacher and every lesson I had at The Groundlings.  I took a total of five classes there (Basic level twice, Intermediate twice and Writing Lab once) and would not trade it for anything.  I learned so much about improvisation and having their name on my resume has been very helpful.

Let’s start out with a very quick lesson about how the school is run:  There are essentially seven class levels at The Groundlings.  The first two are for people with no improv experience, ability or desire to ever perform.  They can be skipped by auditioning for the “third level” class called Basic.  I did this and was accepted into Basic.  Here you learn the basics of improv.  From there, with your teachers OK, you move on to Intermediate Improvisation.  The title of the class gives away what you learn there, more improv.  With that done you have to get approval to take the Writing Lab.  This used to be done by the teacher’s OK but from what I hear now it’s done with another audition.  From there you move on to Advanced and then to a member of The Sunday Company which feeds into the main company but I’ll consider it still a class.  Along the way there are several times you can be cut (like me, after writing lab) and other extension classes you can take even if you’re no longer in classes there.

The most important thing to know about The Groundlings is that it is not a shortcut to being on SNL.  You will most likely be cut.  The joke around LA is that there are more famous people who were cut from The Groundlings than actually made it through to the main company.  Being cut says nothing about your talent as an actor (or writer or improviser).  Don’t go to classes there expecting Lorne Michaels to be waiting for you when you’re done.  Making it to the main company is as much timing and luck as skill, there has to be an opening and there can’t be someone else like you on the company at the time.  Do the classes for the education, not to try to skip to the front of the comedy line.

The Groundlings have a very specific style of comedy that they like to perform.  They favor huge characters and all their writing and most improv is driven by characters.  They don’t like jokes, they like funny characters (like Peewee, another alum).  The characters I write tend to be the kind you wouldn’t be terrified of if you met them on the subway.  I’m not the right style for the Groundlings.

The biggest complaint people have is that the company emphasizes this and pushes it during the writing classes and it’s true.  You will rarely be called upon to do such insane characters in normal acting situations so people dismiss The Groundlings as not useful for actors and I find that not to be the case.  The truth is you still learn the same rules of improv, you learn a lot about creating characters and if you get cut (which you will) you can still use what you learned to create less insane characters in your work.  The techniques work even if you don’t like the company’s style.

My biggest complaint with The Groundlings is how little the students perform.  I got to do exactly one show in my time there (which I rocked, if I must say so myself).  Second City (another big improv training place) is known for having students perform many times along their path and there’s real benefit from that.  I do honestly believe you learn more during a show than during weeks of classes but there’s also something painful about putting beginner improvisational actors up on stage.  Bad improv in class is fine but on stage it’s deadly and could convince people to quit.  The Groundlings definitely doesn’t put you up until you’re ready, but they wait a little too long and give too few opportunities.

Another problem with The Groundlings is how popular they are.  I had to wait over a year between taking Intermediate and Writing Lab.  Some people told me they waited over two years.  If I had passed through Writing Lab to Advanced I would have waited another year for that class.  It can easily take half a decade to make it through the Groundlings program in its entirety.  You can take extension classes (single classes sometimes taught by alumni on a very specific topic) but it’s hard to keep up on improv without actually doing it.

To this date The Groundlings is my only improv training and I’ve never felt that I lacked in that area.  I feel comfortable enough improving on set and during auditions because of these classes.  It’s a large commitment of time and money but I felt it was totally worth it.  Yes, I’m the guy who says acting class is a waste of time but specific technique classes are the exception and improv is definitely a technique that every actor needs to be familiar with.

This is my second review, my first was of Margie Haber’s Cold Reading Classes.

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